Early afternoon light streamed in from the plate glass windows of the small, bustling diner, illuminating the cramped interior with its century old décor. The mingled smells of cinnamon, coffee, and French fries permeated the room, as the scents from the lunch crowd selections warred with oven-baked aromas.
The tourist at Table 7 scrolled the menu selections on the tablet. “How’s the blueberry sour cream pie?”
Ellie graced him with her best patron smile, “So good it will make you cry.” It was the truth. Ellie exercised tremendous discipline not to take a slice home nightly to devour when she was studying. Although sometimes, she’d remember that Ringhead aliens had invaded Earth and life was short. And then she’d eat the damn pie. Just like two days ago when she received that transmission from her roommate Jackie, who had been missing ever since.
Table 7’s eyes lit up in pleasure. “Sold!” He confirmed his cart order on the screen with a tap and Ellie lifted the slim coffee carafe she held. He nodded and she filled up his coffee mug to the brim with the steaming brew.
The sole waitstaff in this fifty table joint, Ellie moved on to the regular customers, chatting, and refilling coffee. She loved working at this small bustling diner, famous for its enormous omelets and delicious pie. The owners of Granny’s Kitchen, Phil and Dan Dodds, accommodated her class schedule, and she still made pretty good tips here with her multiple shifts. Though the chefbot acted as the short order cook for the diner, Dan still handled all the baking by hand. Ellie had teased him for being a throwback. He’d shaken his head at her, exasperation in his voice. “Ellie Grace Giovanni, no robot can make pies the way my grandma did, period.”
She couldn’t complain about Dan’s old fashioned ways because otherwise she wouldn’t have a job. As it was, Dan employed just a few wait staff and a busboy. Bots did all the rest of the cleaning.
Ellie set down her carafe, programmed the coffee maker for fresh batch and then plated a generous slice of the sinfully rich pie for Table 7. First she spooned the deep purple syrup Dan had cooked up, allowing it to pool over the sour cream slice. Ellie refilled the piping tube and squeezed a delicate checkerboard of syrupy lines over the creamy surface. Finally, she picked up a clean blue cloth, spun the plate carefully and wiped away any drips or crumbs. Voilà.
Ellie enjoyed the small details that made Granny’s special. Also, concentrating on these mundane tasks helped dull her growing anxiety over Jackie’s disappearance. Now that more than 48 hours had passed, she could finally follow up with Detective Gonzalez at RenoPD.
With anticipation, Ellie set the plate in front of Table 7 and waited for him to take his first bite. She loved this part. “Wow! Looks great.” He forked up a giant glob of the treat and shoved it in his maw. As he chewed, he closed his eyes and sighed, his expression one of bliss. Her work at this table was done. Ellie refilled his coffee and moved on to the new patron just seated at Table 9.
Unlike the regulars, cyber jarheads, or the tourists who usually frequented Granny’s House, Table 9 had an entirely different look. Though he was kitted out in a dark suit, he didn’t strike her as a banker or politician. With his short blond hair, neatly pressed shirt, and restless hands, he seemed out of place here at Granny’s. Ellie shrugged mentally. The diner’s location between Prater and Pyramid Way did lend itself to the occasional business traveler.
Ellie greeted Table 9 with a megawatt smile, showing off the dentalbot’s fine work. “Would you like some coffee?”
Table 9 looked up her, his gray eyes clear and sharp. Ellie changed her assessment of him from business executive to law enforcement. He nodded at Ellie, and then turned his attention back to the tablet. “Can I answer any questions about the menu?” Ellie offered. Without even looking back at her, he shook his head. Ellie took the hint and moved on to Table 10 where Mr. and Mrs. Lang were seated.
Like clockwork, Mr. and Mrs. Lang made their way to Granny’s at noon every day. Mr. Lang was 90 if he was a day, and used his walker to get around. His wife wasn’t much younger and had a pronounced limp. Ellie used to wondered why they both didn’t have surgery to replace their bad knees. The new enhanced joints could be lasered in by a robot in mere minutes and the healing time frame was fast with the new bio-gel. The procedure could be costly but the Langs lived up in the golf course area and surely could afford it.
She stopped wondering the day she saw Mrs. Lang make the sign of the cross as if to ward off evil when one of the Union Wolves had come in for lunch. The petite soldier had sported an entirely robotic arm, and radiated an aura of slight menace. Ellie wasn’t as freaked out about it, plus those jarheads left good tips.
Mr. Lang had started shaking, the tremors in his arm causing him to drop his fork. “Not human!” he’d muttered. Mrs. Lang had nodded vehemently, the coiffed silvery puff of her hair bobbing along. “Abomination!” she’d exclaimed. Ellie figured getting a robotic limb wouldn’t make anyone a non-human, but she avoided philosophical debates with patrons. It tended to be bad for tips. Besides, she knew part of Granny’s charm for a lot of the patrons, was that it was still staffed by humans.
In Ellie’s lifetime, she’d watched as rising AI and robotics replaced human workers. Resentment had spawned the humanist movement. Then aliens had showed up all over Northern Europe and started killing their way through smalls towns in the coldest reaches of Earth. That had really given the humanist movement a giant boost. But Ellie had plans and an alien invasion an ocean away wasn’t going to stop her from paying off her vehicle and going to medical school.
After saying farewell to the Langs and clearing their table, Ellie popped into kitchen. “Hey Dan, my shift is ending. Table 9 still has a guest.” He waved goodbye and turned back to programming the chefbot. Table 9 was her only patron left, and he’d surprised her by ordering the strawberry rhubarb. She would’ve sworn he was an apple pie guy, through and through. Maybe dutch apple on an adventurous day.
Ellie hung up her apron, pulled her jacket off the hook and headed out, eager to admire her Comet-S. Not new, but totally paid off. A point of pride with Ellie. No debts.
Stepping out into the small lot, the heat of the desert sun blazed overhead, warming Ellie’s dark kinky curls. As she approached her compact solo vehicle, the doors of the dark high end model parked next to her opened. Two nondescript men stepped out, both similarly attired in dark suits and wraparound sunglasses. Ellie’s steps slowed.
Before she could decide whether to continue to her vehicle, the door of Granny’s opened again. Looking over her shoulder, Ellie saw Table 9 strolling towards her. Shit.
Ellie took a step back, enough to let her see Table 9 and the two goons. Table 9 kept walking and finally stopped in front of her. He was carrying a small blue takeout box emblazoned with the Granny’s logo in one hand. With the other, he pulled out a badge. IWC. Her heart sank. “Ms. Giovanni, I’m Agent Harding with the US Task Force and Liaison of the International War Council and we have some questions for you regarding Ms. Jaclyn Yamamoto.”
The goons sat up front while the vehicle drove on auto-nav. That left Ellie stuck in the back with Agent Harding. The vehicle could have just come straight from the manufacturer, with its spotless interior, unmarred panels and empty cupholders. But it didn’t have that new car smell. Ellie watched the familiar landscape go by and could only speculate where they were taking her as they left Reno-Sparks proper.
They rode for the next half hour in complete silence. Her mind roiled with the implications of the IWC nabbing her and the damn video that Jackie had sent her. It must have been real. Oh Jackie. Sadness and fear warred within her. Finally Ellie spoke up, her voice breaking the uncomfortable silence. “Agent Harding, I have a tutoring job shortly that I am missing. I need to notify them.”
Harding turned to face Ellie, his expression bland. “I’m aware of your schedule with the Andersson family, Ms. Giovanni. We delivered a message to them earlier that you had a schedule conflict and would be unavailable this evening.”
Ellie turned her face away to stare out the window again. Great. She hoped she didn’t lose her job over this. She loved tutoring science to the Andersson twins. It was an excellent paying gig too. If she had more of those, she would be able to help out her dad with the medical bills.
At last, the vehicle turned off the main road to a frontage road lined with tall barbed wired fencing. Goverment property signs dotted the fencing periodically and Ellie had an inkling of where they were. Camp John Glenn, the military headquarters for the Union Wolves.
Ellie shivered in apprehension. How long would they keep her there? As if noticing her rising alarm, Harding spoke again. “You are not under arrest, Ms. Giovanni. We simply need some information from you.” The implication being, she better come clean, or else. If anything, that statement ratched up her growing alarm. Despite being seated, her heartrate had skyrocketed and Ellie knew she was breathing rapidly.
They headed into the tall steel structure with the rounded dome. To her dismay, one of the goons opened the storage unit on the vehicle and pulled out a familiar blue backpack. Ellie usually left it in her apartment on days she didn’t have lab time on campus. They’d been to her apartment. Ellie’s fear gave way to anger at the intrusion to her home.
They led her down long gray corridors, and the occasional soldier in casual dress passed them. Ellie walked slowly, stalling for time. Some of the soldiers slowed their steps as well, watching Harding’s entourage. Ellie tried to catch their eyes, hoping against hope for a friendly face. Her prayers were answered as they turned the corner, and she spotted a tall Asian American man in gray camo. She recognized the handsome soldier from the diner. He’d come in many times with the petite woman with the cybernetic arm. Ellie would have to be dead not to have noticed him at the diner. She’d taken to giving him an extra scoop of ice cream with his slice of peach pie. She stumbled and fell into Extra Scoop, then righted herself by grabbing his arm. As he looked at her in surprise, she exclaimed “Sorry!” in a loud voice but to his ear she whispered, “help me.”
Harding turned in irritation. “Come along, Ms. Giovanni.”
Ellie feigned another apology and then stepped on the soldier’s foot as she passed him.
Harding made a gesture to the goons. They paused outside a room with a large glass observation window and Harding opened the door for Ellie to proceed him. “Please have a seat.”
The door shut with an ominous click. After Ellie sat, Harding placed her backpack on the metal table between them. “Ms. Giovanni, would you please take out your tablet?”
Ellie reached over and unzipped her backpack. From its cavernous interior, she pulled out a large folio-sized tablet. This was her primary reader.
Harding nodded. “You have another one, right?”
Ellie frowned. This guy already seemed to know everything about her life. But she cooperated and pulled the slim tablet with its metallic blue case out of her jacket pocket, her hand trembling slightly. She placed it on the table, and then slid her hand back into her pocket, clenching the fabric to stop the trembling.
Harding didn’t make any move to pick up. Instead, he scrutinized her face, his gaze slow and measured, practically counting each freckle on her face. “Have you received any transmissions from Ms. Yamamoto this week?” Ellie nodded, a short jerk of her head.
“And when did you receive that message?” To her relief, Harding didn’t seem inclined to draw this out.
“Uh…two days ago.” Ellie wondered if she should ask for an attorney.
“What was in that message?”
“I’m not sure I understood it.” Ellie replied, cautious.
Harding didn’t quite sneer at her response, but close. He gestured to her tablet. “Please play it for me.”
Ellie logged in and scrolled for Jackie’s transmission. 20 seconds long. She didn’t want to watch it again. Steeling her resolve, she pressed play and then looked at Harding’s face.
Screams echoed from the tablet speakers and the vid screen splashed an image of people garbed in medieval dress fleeing an unseen evil. “Ellie, they’re here. Oh my god, my god…they’re here…” Jackie’s voice came through wispy and ragged with her breathing. The shrieks of terror drowned out the rest of what Jackie was saying.
Ellie knew what was coming next but couldn’t look away. A pale blue arm reached toward the screen, grotesque claws emerging where a hand would normally be. Alien. Ringhead aliens had finally braved the heat of the west and come here, the western safe zone. The transmission abruptly ended.
Ellie blinked away the tears that formed in her eyes and drew in a shaky breath. “I’d like to exercise my right to an attorney.”
Harding quirked his head and his reply was as she expected. “This is wartime, Ms. Giovanni. We are under martial law. As a task force member, I am charged with this nation’s safety and the safety of humanity. You are not entitled to counsel.”
She turned away from that penetrating gaze and that emotionless voice, struggling to regain her composure. Ellie needed a plan. She needed to get out of this room.
“Have you shown this transmission to anyone?” Harding’s cool questioning continued.
She didn’t want to respond. At the time, she thought she had been doing the right thing to contact Professor Cooper, her biology professor. She looked back at Harding but looked out the observation window while she thought about how to respond. She could see into the gray hallway, and the back of one of the goons.
“May I have some water?”
“Answer the question Ms. Giovanni, and I will send for some water shortly.”
“I–” Ellie paused as she spotted commotion in the hallway. Wait, had Extra Scoop just walked by?
The door to the room burst open and two men in battle dress uniforms stepped in. One tall and trim, the other short and barrel chested with the homely face of a bulldog.
“Agent Harding, I was not informed of these activities on my base.” The shorter one snarled. The tall one stayed by the door, casting a warning eye on the goons.
“Colonel Phillips. We are nearly concluded.” Harding remained calm.
“You’re concluded when I say you are. And that’s now.” Colonel Phillips turned to Ellie. “Ms. Giovanni, Gunnery Sergeant Mason will show you to the guest lounge while we ready transpo for you back to town.”
Quick as a rabbit, Ellie popped up out of her chair, snatched her backpack and tablet off the table and rushed to Sergeant Mason’s side. As they exited the room, Ellie spotted Extra Scoop leaning against the hallway, and he tipped his head to her in a small nod.