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Monday, March 8th, 2083
Posted 5:16 pm by Barry Simcoe
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On my third day in Chicago, the Venezuelans evacuated my hotel.
It’s like 7:00 a.m. and a soldier in an AGRT uniform comes around banging on every door on my floor. Bam-bam-bam-bam! Nothing gets your heart racing in the morning like a rifle butt hammering on your door.
We’re all roused up and marched down the stairs to the street. There’s this woman on my floor, in bare feet and bedclothes, and when this kid from the AGRT bams on her door, what does she do? She grabs her coffee maker. We’re hustling down thirty-two flights of stairs, and she’s carrying this coffeemaker with the cord dangling around her feet. I’m still half-asleep and all I can think is, Damn—should I have grabbed my waffle iron?
Round about floor fifteen or sixteen she trips on the cord and smashes her elbow on the railing. So for the last fifteen flights of stairs I’m loaning her my arm and carrying this coffee maker for her, with I swear to God half a pot of hot coffee still in it.
We get to the street and we’re all milling around. I start to wonder if they evacuated only a few floors. Either that or this hotel is virtually empty, because there’s maybe a hundred of us down here, total. Hardly enough to fill fifty floors of a lakeside hotel in downtown Chicago.
The staff is outside too, looking pretty put out. A slender young front desk clerk dressed in a thin pink chemise and not much else is hopping up and down a few feet to my right, trying desperately to stay warm.
There’s maybe forty Venezuelan soldiers lined up in front of the hotel, and this guy in uniform yelling at us in Spanish. And there’s this robot.
I’ve got no idea what’s going on and I’m freezing to death, standing on Wacker Drive in early March in sweatpants and a T-shirt. I’m shaking my head at the coffee lady because I don’t want to give her coffeepot back, since it’s the only source of heat in about a hundred yards. This Venezuelan sergeant or captain or whatever is shouting and gesturing and beginning to turn purple, and I’m starting to think he’s shouting at me, or maybe the coffeepot.
And I absolutely cannot take my eyes off this robot. It’s magnificent. Three stories tall, maybe fourteen yards, Argentinean design. Kind of squat, like a giant gargoyle. Diesel powered, with steam and whatever venting out the back. It has some pretty slick telecom gear, a Nokia 3300 base station bolted on top and four whip antennas, all rigged for satellite. Some heavy ordnance as well: I can see an 80 mm Vulcan autocannon and at least two mounted antipersonnel weapons.
It’s seen action, too. Plenty of scoring up front, and the Vulcan looks like it’s recently been refitted. Someone who knew what they were doing spent some time painting the whole chassis with a bird motif, blue and white, and this close the effect is very impressive.
It’s facing west on Wacker, poised like a bird, with one leg stiff and one half-raised, its great metal toes dangling a few feet above the pavement. Nothing that big should be able to stand so gracefully, like a raptor hunting prey.
Still, it seems like a lot of firepower just to impress a bunch of tourists. Martin, a data miner from London, spots me and shuffles a bit closer. He glances at the coffeepot. “Were we supposed to bring our appliances?” he whispers.
“I think it was optional,” I say. “You know what the hell’s going on?”
The shouting Venezuelan soldier moves closer, gesturing violently at the hotel behind us. Martin keeps his eyes fixed on the pavement until he passes. “Something about evacuating the hotel for our own safety,” he says quietly.
I nod toward the captain. “Guy seems pretty pissed.”
Martin listens to the shouting for a few more moments. Then a soldier dashes up, handing the captain a black tablet. I realize with a start that it’s not a soldier at all— it’s a slender robot, black-limbed and humanoid. I’ve seen a few robots with a small mobile chassis, but this is the first one I’ve seen in Chicago. The captain stops shouting long enough to look at the tablet.
“The hotel staff was supposed to wake us up, apparently,” Martin translates for me. “The colonel had to send his soldiers to get us. He says next time, he’ll let everyone die in their beds.”
That doesn’t sound good. “What’s going to kill us in our beds, exactly?”
Martin shrugs, giving me a nervous glance. “Something bad.”
I was about to reply, but the colonel had started moving again. Whatever he saw on that black tablet, he didn’t like it. He’s not shouting now, but his face is grim. He moves into the street, the slender robot at his side. He’s speaking to the soldiers nearby and looking west down Wacker. He points, and two of the soldiers take off running toward a concrete barrier.
A skinny corporal whose uniform looks like it would blow off in a stiff breeze marches up to us and starts speaking. He’s staring just over our heads, but presumably addressing us. He’s much quieter than the colonel, and his words are so thickly accented it takes me a moment to realize he’s speaking English.
He wants us to march south, down North Stetson Avenue. On the double, now now now. Martin and I get our feet moving, but too many others are still milling around, confused. I guess most of them can’t hear the soldier—or can’t understand him—and now that the colonel is gone, people have started breaking into groups. The buzz of conversation is getting louder.
Martin stops at my side. “We need to get these people moving,” he says, concern in his voice.
Something happens then. Someone down the street shouts, and all the soldiers duck, heads swiveling to the west. The skinny corporal in front of us stops speaking, his arm hanging powerlessly in the air, still pointing south down North Stetson . His head turns west with the rest. His mouth is open, but he’s making no sound.
Something streaks through the air, small and bright like a spark struck from a sword blade. It hits the towering robot and explodes, a hammer-punch of light and sound. One of the elegant whip antennas goes spinning off its chassis, skidding away down the street until it smashes into a parked Mercedes.
There’s screaming then. Screaming and the sound of automatic weapons, returning fire to the west.
“Jesus Christ,” Martin shouts, ducking down at my side.
All around us, people are frozen in place. The half-naked receptionist to my right is covering her mouth, her eyes wide. She reaches out to the guy next to her, tugging at his shirt. She starts to ask a question.
I seize her arm roughly; grab the shirtfront of the guy she’s talking to. “Move, you idiots!” I shove them toward Stetson.
They start to run. A few feet away, four of the hotel staff are cowering on the curb. I pull the first one to her feet. “Go! Get moving! Martin — help me!”
Martin tears his eyes away from the street. He pushes himself to his feet, helps me shepherd people south, down Stetson Avenue.
The Venezuelan corporal breaks his paralysis at last. He’s shouting and waving, pushing when necessary, herding the crowd south.
People start to move. But nearly half of the crowd has surged back up the steps toward the hotel. There’s a panicked knot of guests trying to get through the glass doors.
There’s another explosion behind me — loud and very close. I stumble, see the glass windows of the hotel vibrate violently. There’s a flash of heat on the back of my head. “Get away from the windows!” I shout. “Stay out of the hotel — move! Down the street!”
Martin and I are working together. The corporal comes up behind us, trying to help. But it’s not enough. There are still nearly forty guests clustered at the hotel entrance. Most aren’t even moving—they’re just hunkered down near the bushes to the side of the doors, or huddled together on the concrete steps. Already my throat is hoarse from shouting, but I keep at it.