They were right all along.
Rhine grinned as she wrote down the words in what she called her “production notebook.” From the corner of her eye, she saw a white blur dash past her as she sat at the picnic table in her back yard.
Happy barks followed and Rhine grinned again. She glanced over at the back door where Duke, the terrier previously glimpsed as a white blur, greeted the two figures who’d emerged into the yard. Duke was happy to see Marty, of course, but Marty was just human. Duke was much happier to see Puddle, the boxer walking next to Marty.
The dogs trotted into the center of the yard where Moira was standing, holding some kind of stuffed toy that she squeaked at them both. She made a mock sad face when they ignored her, being more interested in playing with each other for the moment. She sneezed before heading over to the picnic table to join Marty and Rhine.
Within the next ten minutes, Rhine’s dad brought out some healthier snacks to offset the chips, candy, and soft drinks that Rhine had put out for everyone. And the rest of the ones who’d accepted Rhine’s invitation all showed up. Darany and James were delighted at the sight of the dogs and the snacks, and the news that Rhine would be ordering pizza later. Last but not least, came Rhine’s best friend, Sheila.
Rhine had been disappointed at first that no one else had been interested. But the six of them fit pretty comfortably at the picnic table. And her mom had pointed out that summer vacation had just started. No one wanted to think of assignments of projects. And that’s the only thing Rhine had said when she invited them over. She had a creative project she wanted to do over the summer.
“So, I called you all here today because we’re still feeling good about the play,” she started, after allowing a few minutes for them to open some bags and start pouring and sipping drinks. “And I wanted to talk to you about going to the next level.”
Enticed by the smell of food, the dogs too joined them. Rhine made sure to let everyone know how the dog treats were labeled. Moira tossed a few treats out to Puddle and Duke.
“You want to take the play to the community college?” James asked.
Rhine shook her head.
Darany pulled a chocolate bonbon away from his mouth. “You don’t mean…Broadway?”
Rhine laughed and waved her hand. “No, no, the play is good. Leave the play alone.”
It was the second year that Rhine, her present company, and seven of their fellow students had performed their original play, “Attack of the Giant Cyclops Worm” on the hallowed stage of the Readerson Middle School auditorium.
Rhine glanced around the table. “I want to talk to you guys about doing a movie together.”
“I’m in,” Darany said.
Marty laughed. “You haven’t heard the idea yet.”
James frowned a little. “You’re talking about turning the play into a movie, right?”
Rhine turned to Marty. The story was his idea. And he began to tell the others about it. He called Puddle over and rubbed his head just above his ears.
“Okay, hear me out before you say anything.” Marty stopped and waited for any objections. But everyone just nodded and kept snacking.
Many people—even people who didn’t have dogs—were familiar with the observation that dogs didn’t seem to like vacuum cleaners and would bark at them when they were operating. Marty had observed that Puddle seemed to be suspicious of their cleaner even when it was not operating. And that got Marty thinking.
“What do they know that we don’t know?” he said. “What are they trying to protect us from?”
Marty beamed. “Pretty much, yeah. You guys are good!”
Rhine knew he had more details than that. She and Marty had already brainstormed a few plot and character ideas. But they wanted to give the group a chance to chime in.
After some initial ambivalence—the others liked the idea of making a movie but weren’t sure about trying a new idea—Rhine pointed out that they came up with an original story the previous year for the school play. And they did everything else too. Built the sets, made the costumes, came up with special effects—safe special effects. But the others argued that they had a teacher’s help and help from parents, because it was a school activity.
The movie Rhine wanted to make was on their own time, for fun. And the one teacher they would have chosen to help them was on a honeymoon vacation. Also, they would have help from any of the other kids who worked on the play both years.
Rhine argued that the beauty of shooting “on-location” was that they wouldn’t have to build any sets from scratch. Or even many of the props they’d need.
“Wait, what?” Darany frowned.
Rhine shrugged. “We’re on a budget, Dar.”
James grabbed a napkin and a nearby marker. He started sketching. “What do these robot aliens look like, really? Not vacuum cleaners, right? That would be boring.”
“So, we’re doing another alien invasion story?” Moira asked. “Are you okay with that?”
She turned to Sheila, and suddenly, everyone else did too.
Sheila took a swig of orange-pineapple soda. In some ways it was good that they’d gotten used to her true form, her maroon skin, short torso, antennae, and her four eyes that blinked all at different times. Her appearance was not a costume. It was a result of her being a non-native non-human Earthling.
Last year, at opening night of the play, she showed her true self for the first time. Most people in the audience thought she was wearing a costume, since their play was about aliens. Their teacher thought she was wearing a costume. Her parents were shocked. But her fellow players all knew by that time that she really was an alien. And little by little, some people in her neighborhood were coming to know the truth of it, and not make a big deal of it.
To those who didn’t know, she was an eccentric kid expressing herself. Being a bipedal humanoid species, it was easy for Sheila to blend in, even in her true form. But she did still put on her “human make-up” as she called it, on most days, and when out and about in public.
Sheila put her soda down. “It’s fine. At least you guys are assuming we all have technology that’s advanced enough to bring entire fleets of ships to your system.”
“You don’t?” Darany asked.
Sheila threw a jelly bean at him. He tried catching it with his mouth, but it bounced off his cheek. “Back home,” she said, “we’ve got tons of books and shows about how primitive humans are. How they’re just now learning about feelings and how to admit it when they make mistakes. The kind of stuff that kids learn. Most of them are about how you guys still think you’re ready to go out into space.” She held up her hands. “My family doesn’t think that.”
“Okay, let’s get back on track,” Marty said. “Does anyone have any specific ideas about characters? Like, I plan on playing the part of Vacuum Machine Overlord General, or V’Mog.” He turned to Darany. “Do you think you could build V’Mog?”
Darany turned to James. “Do you think you could draw V’Mog?”
James nodded and reached for another napkin. But Rhine handed him her production notebook instead.
“The plot will be pretty simple again,” Rhine said. “Bad guys do bad stuff. Good guys find out. They stop the bad buys. What happens in between?”
“Random adventures, because we’re kids and we should be having fun,” Moira said.
“Yeah, but we’re starting to grow up,” James added. “Some of us are technically teens. We should be taking stuff seriously.”
Moira nodded. “Especially if that ‘stuff’ is an alien invasion—no offense, Sheila.”
“None taken. You guys know I don’t represent all aliens in the known universe, right?”
Things went smoothly at first. After two years of working together on the play, they knew each other’s talents and skills pretty well. It also helped that they were friends. Well, “theater” friends as Sheila called them.
No one objected to Rhine being director, because they all expected she would be. James was designated the cinematographer—once he looked up what that was and agreed to it. Darany would be the special effects guy. And they probably would need to build a set or two, so he’d handle that too. Sheila would handle costumes and help Dar with building. Moira volunteered to be the animal handler—they had cast both Puddle and Duke in the movie. The dogs seemed to be cooperating, with the help of excessive treats and ear-scratching from all their human cast-mates. All six collaborated on the general story, but Marty drafted the script, somehow managing to incorporate the ongoing feedback everyone had about their respective characters.
After a few weeks of preparation, they started filming the opening scene. James and Moira had drawn life-size paper puppets to act out all the background exposition that the narrator would be saying to set up the story. Rhine would be that narrator.
“Puppets and voiceover. What could go wrong?” Rhine asked.
They did a few takes where they saw the camera was slightly off-center, and the microphone was too far away—and then too close, and the lights were throwing shadows from the puppets onto the background, so it all looked bad. For one of the takes, they could hear a lawnmower. And for another one, there were dogs barking when they weren’t supposed to be—Puddle and Duke had just arrived.
They filmed a few more takes. And Moira helped James with the editing. The first program they tried using was something Moira’s brother had told her was a “basic” version of a really good video-editing suite. But they got frustrated trying to look up how to use all the features. Neither of them wanted to watch hours of tutorials.
James walked away. Moira installed a few applications with free trials, and one of them was easy enough for her figure out without looking anything up. By the time James got back from a sandwich break with a plate of turkey and bacon for Moira, she had already figured out to add an animated title to the beginning and a musical track. But she’d messed up with the editing of the takes, because she’d started before she synced the audio, and then she got frustrated and started tinkering with other features.
Once they figured out what to do, the two of them took turns looking through all the takes, pulling the best ones, and weaving it all together into the opening sequence of the movie.
And then, they watched it.
Adventurous space music played over a field of stars and a glowing nebula in the distance. The camera tilted down to show the shiny metallic hull of a spaceship descending toward a planet, a familiar green-and-blue orb.
The narration began.
The law-abiding spaceman named Davenport has just arrived back on Earth to enjoy a well-deserved vacation. Davenport works for the Department of Exoplanetary Travel, or the Department, for short. Through loyal and faithful agents like Davenport, the Department makes sure humans who are traveling through the cosmos follow all the proper rules of contact.
The scene faded out and faded in to show the puppet of the spaceman (who would be played by Dar in the live-action portion of the movie). He was inside his advanced apartment. The puppet of a tiny terrier approached him, tail wagging. His happy barks (provided by Duke) greeted his human friend.
The narration continued. The music changed and the scenes continued to change as the narrator told the story of spaceman and spacedog.
His dog, named Rocket, is ecstatic to see him. But Davenport soon learns that it’s not just because Rocket missed him. Rocket is behaving strangely, barking and trying to get into the locked shed where Davenport keeps all his Department gear.
One night, Rocket stops barking and he starts…speaking!
He confesses to Davenport that he’s not an Earth-born dog. He’s from the K9 system in the Sirius sector.
A few centuries prior, one of his people was sent to Earth to make first contact with its highest form of life—dogs, of course. They did and everything was going well. His people were identical to the dogs of Earth, so they fit right into dog society on Earth. They even started to kind of like the young and reckless bipeds that the dogs called “hind-leggers,” and who called themselves “humans.”
Rocket spoke (voiced by Sheila, doing her best to sound a little gruff).
“Your Earth dogs had been looking after you humans for thousands of years. But then…came the advent of the vacuum machine.”
The music rose as the camera tilted up and the image of Rocket and Davenport faded. The title zoomed out of the background, in futuristic font, expanding and glowing.
Attack of the Vacuum Machine Army.
Rhine gaped as the title receded to the background again. She turned to the others, her crew.
They were exhausted geniuses. They took a break for the rest of that day and the rest of that weekend. Rhine treated everyone—well, her parents treated everyone—to another pizza dinner. And they all went to the carnival after learning that Moira had never been to one.
And they took another day to recover from being at the carnival.
But on the following Tuesday, they were ready to get back to work.
Just in time for things to start going wrong.
Rhine expected they’d encounter some setbacks in the production of the movie. It had happened with the play both years.
But the first setback happened with the casting of their main villains.
Rhine had assumed that everyone would be able to gather their various vacuum cleaners and bring them to her house where most of the main action would be filmed. But the parents and guardians of two households refused, because their vacuum cleaners were high-end and too expensive for their kid to just borrow.
So the crew improvised, getting permission to film the vacuum when it was being used. That meant having to bring portable lighting to one of the homes. Someone’s mom liked to vacuum in the evening.
Then there were Moira’s allergies. She was allergic to both dogs. But she loved them and loved playing with them. Her dad wanted to take her in to be tested and given guidance about appropriate allergy medications (he didn’t want her to just take over-the-counter stuff without asking her doctor first). The good news was that her allergies didn’t get any worse than getting inflamed sinuses. The problem was that her throat had also gotten sore.
Moira was usually shy, but she had a beautiful singing voice and loved to sing in front of people. According to the original script, her character had to sing a note at a frequency that would freeze the invading vacuum machines, and buy enough time for the heroes to disable them. Moira’s throat was too sore for her to speak above a whisper, much less sing.
“It’s okay,” Rhine said. “We’ll improvise. It’s what we do.”
The first time one of them was activated, the dogs—whether Earth-born or not—knew that something was amiss. Their cleverest codebreakers and linguists discovered that the sound the vacuums made, aside from being loud and annoying, masked a coded language.
The vacuum machines…were communicating.
With each other, and with something else, out in the cosmos.
“The signal’s still being sent, but we can’t trace where it’s going,” Rocket said. (Duke was walking along the second-floor hallway, led by treats that an off-camera Moira was holding.) “All we can surmise is that the vacuum machines are establishing themselves on the planet in as many households as they can. They’ve been gathering intelligence about what they perceive to be the dominant species on the planet—humans.”
“Probably reporting to their leaders back home,” Davenport replied (played by Darany, wearing a jumpsuit made from some silvery curtain material Sheila found for sale at the craft store).
The dogs first suspected an invasion, coming not from the sky, but from within their very homes. But over on the past few months, they had learned enough to determine that the vacuum machine army wasn’t going to invade the Earth. They had done that already. What they were going to do was vacuum the planet into oblivion. That would create a black hole in the perfect spot for the vacuum machines to shed their disguises and settle down.
“But there are millions of black holes in this galaxy alone!” Davenport cried. “Why destroy a planet to make a new one?”
(Darany and Duke entered Davenport’s shed—which was actually the office of Rhine’s dad decorated to look futuristic. Darany turned on the display that showed the locations of every vacuum machine on Earth.)
“You don’t know quickly they procreate,” Rocket said. “The rest of the galaxy has gotten crowded. So the vacuum machines came to Earth to colonize it, if it was not already inhabited by an advanced species.”
“What do they think we are?”
(Duke shook his head courtesy of Moira waving a piece of chicken breast back and forth). “Since none of Earth’s lifeforms seemed capable of fighting back, the vacuum machines were technically cleared to proceed according to their laws and regulations. As a courtesy, they plan to send out warning. They will give the planet’s inhabitants and visitors three planetary rotations to evacuate.”
“When are they planning on doing this?”
(Duke put a paw on the “control panel” and a time counter appeared above the three-dimensional rotating display of the Earth.)
“Next week,” Rocket said. “I need your help, my friend, to spread the word among humans. I know you’ll need more than three days to get everyone off the planet.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Davenport said, “I’m staying right here, to defend Earth. I’ll gather a group of volunteers, some to help evacuate the planet, and some to stay with me and fight!”
Rocket laughed. “I thought you’d say that. Most of your dogs feel the same way. Over the years, we’ve been trying to set back their plan. We’ve been clogging their systems by shedding more and more fur. But we didn’t want to cause any suspicions among them. They don’t seem to realize that we’re onto them.”
Rocket shared all his intelligence files with his good friend. Davenport brought those files to the Department, confident that they would act immediately.
But they didn’t.
None of them believed him. His boss told him that they looked into Rocket. They’d learned that he was a crackpot. His own people didn’t believe him about the vacuum machines.
Rocket was furious when he heard that Earth’s defenses would not act to defend Earth.
“This is my home too! And it is in danger. I wouldn’t lie. Not about that.”
“I believe you,” Davenport said. “I’ve known you for many years now, pal. I’m still real peeved that you didn’t reveal your true self to me until now, but…I get that friends have secrets from each other sometimes.”
“Then what do we do now, my friend?”
(Darany crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes.) “Friend…that’s it.” (He snapped his fingers.)
“If the law won’t help us, we’ll have to turn to…the outlaw.”
“Have you noticed that Puddle has seemed really interested in the movie?” Rhine asked.
She and Marty were sitting on the floor against the couch in his living room, watching the latest sequences that Moira had put together.
Marty glanced over at Puddle, who was sitting right next to him, probably hoping to be tossed one of the strawberries that Marty was eating.
His ears perked up, and he raised his head and looked at Rhine.
“You want one?” she asked, holding up a strawberry.
Marty shook his head. “I can’t tell. Could be he’s just interested in our snacks. Or he’s waiting for us to put down what we’re doing and play with him instead.”
“Or maybe he knows something.” She tossed Puddle a strawberry, which he caught and started chomping.
Marty leaned over to Rhine. “Okay, but really, I’ve tried to communicate with him—like trying to get him to tap his paw once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no,’ and then asking him questions. And not only that, but…the movie is definitely getting in my head. I’ve been stopping every time I have to walk past the closet where we keep our vacuum cleaner.”
“Yeah, I mean, that sounds normal. Your vacuum cleaner does play the role of the main villain.”
Marty raised his fists into the air. “V’mog!”
“Maybe Puddle is communicating with you, with your subconscious, through psychic waves.”
“Sometimes I wonder,” Marty said. “Did we make up the story, or did someone tell it to us?”
And they both looked at Puddle, who tilted his head.
After working on their movie for the entire summer—filming, editing, revising the script, adapting when their original ideas fell through—the cast and crew of six were done. At a barbecue at Rhine’s house, attended by invited members of their families, they premiered the movie.
It wasn’t the first time the kids saw their own movie though. They had reserved that honor for themselves the night before.
Some people did leave for other plans before it got dark. But there were a few scattered conversations about how good the kids were in the school play, as everyone enjoyed veggie burgers with cheddar, kosher hot dogs, corn salad, chilled watermelon slices, mango puree sprinkled with cumin, and a few dozen other tasty summer dishes.
At last it was dark enough to begin the movie. The yard went dark, and a few people scrambled to get to their seats as the opening sequence narration began.
The law-abiding spaceman named Davenport has just arrived back on Earth to enjoy a well-deserved vacation. Davenport works for the Department of Exoplanetary Travel…
Those who’d seen the school play cheered at the mention of a character they recognized. At the part where Rocket started speaking, there was a fluttering of chuckles. When the music rose and the movie’s title appeared onscreen, a surge of cheers and applause swept through the human audience. And barking and tail-wagging from the canine audience.
Rhine glanced over at Moira and James, who were handling the projector, and who were both beaming. She glanced over at Darany, who was being tickled and patted on the back and on his head by his older siblings. He was loving it. She glanced over at Marty, who was nodding and grinning. He was sitting next to his aunt, who’d probably just asked him if he was the voice of Rocket. And she glanced over at her best friend. Sheila glanced back and winked one of her four eyes.
The title faded away and the live-action part began with Davenport and Rocket walking into the shed to share intelligence.
When they walked back out, only to be confronted by Davenport’s vacuum machine, the audience groaned.
Sheila’s voice, modified to sound robotic and high-pitched, threatened the heroes.
“I heard everything, you fools! And I’m going to report it to our grand leader, the Vacuum Machine Overlord General.”
An action scene proceeded, with Davenport reaching for a laser pistol, while Rocket growled at a frequency low enough to disrupt the vacuum machine’s communications.
Davenport fired the pistol, but it was no use. The vacuum machine was shielded.
And as the narrator explained, there was no plug they could pull. The vacuum machines of Davenport’s time all ran on an internal power source, which the heroes could not access through the shield.
But Davenport managed to tackle the vacuum machine, toss it into the shed, and activate a restraining field.
Another cheer went through the audience at the heroes’ triumph over one enemy. But there was still an army to contend with.
Having already watched the movie, Rhine now watched the audience. A few of the smaller kids were nodding off, and a few people were whispering to each other. But all attention was on the screen.
The audience booed when the Department rejected Davenport’s plea to evacuate the Earth. There were sighs of “aww” and cries of “yeah!” when Davenport said he believed Rocket.
Davenport crossed his arms and raised his brow.
“Friend…that’s it.” He snapped his fingers. “If the law won’t help us, we’ll have to turn to…the outlaw.”
And right when everyone was on the edge of their seat…
The screen faded, and the word “Intermission” appeared. The audience reacted with exhales, gasps, and a few frustrated moans.
Moira and James slowly turned on all the lights. And everyone was allowed to take bathroom breaks and get more food.
The kids weren’t ready to bask in glory yet, even though everyone in Rhine’s backyard was blown away by what they’d seen so far.
The six movie-makers gathered by the projector.
“My stomach is doing backflips, and cartwheels, and somersaults,” Marty said. And he pretty much spoke for all of them.
Rhine guided everyone in taking a deep breath and exhaling through their mouths. “Let’s go stick the landing.”
With only a week before the vacuum machine army rose up and sucked up all the planet’s matter until nothing was left but nothing, and with no help from the Department, or any other agency, Davenport turned to someone he knew he could count on.
He contacted his oldest friend, the Roamer of the Cosmos, the outlaw Exoplanetary Janet.
As much as she loved roaming the cosmos, Earth was special to Janet. She’d been born there and had a happy childhood. But when she wanted to start roaming the cosmos, the Department refused to grant her an intergalactic passport once they learned of her plans, plans that violated their strict rules and policies about interacting with alien species.
“How can she help?” Rocket asked.
“For one thing, Janet has a knack for ruining the plans of the world-destroying types.”
For another thing, Davenport’s sidekick, a robot named Pi-Maker, had decided to go roaming with her while Davenport was on vacation. Pi might be able to help Rocket decipher more of the vacuum machine codes. He was good at codes.
A cheer went through the audience again at the arrival of Janet (played by Moira) and Pi-Maker (voiced by Marty). By that time, only a few days remained before the vacuum machine army would rise up.
Pi did indeed discover something useful, by studying Davenport’s vacuum machine, still imprisoned in a restraining field. There was a specific frequency at which the vacuum machines would be stunned still and their shields disabled. After that, all anyone would have to do was remove the power source. But there were a few catches. The tone would only work once the vacuum machines were all in operation. But once they were in operation, they would be able to control any non-sentient machine.
The heroes programmed the tone into Pi. But once the machine army started marching—or rather, rolling—out into the streets, their singular signal was so powerful that it took control of every machine on the planet. Pi turned against his friend, and they had to put him in the restraining field.
Janet had a lovely voice that could sing any tune and any note, including the tone that would freeze the vacuum machine army. But they needed the global communication network that was controlled by machines. Without a way to broadcast her voice, the Earth was still doomed.
Vacuum machines burst out of closets. They threatened to roll over hissing household cats and bare human feet. They whined and droned…and they sucked.
“All right,” said Davenport. (Thanks to some special effects, Darany made it look like he, Moira, and Duke were running from dozens of the vacuum machines zooming toward them). “We’ll have to go to Plan C.”
Plan C was Rocket’s original plan A, but it wasn’t ready. Rocket had devised a hair-growth acceleration potion that would make dogs shed like crazy. But it was meant to work over months.
“We’ll improvise,” Janet said. “It’s what we do. Can you super-charge the formula? Make it work in minutes instead of months?”
Rocket nodded. “I can aerosolize it, but there’s no way to distribute it everywhere on the planet at once.”
“Sure there is. We can drop canisters from my ship.”
“That won’t work, Janet,” Davenport said. “Any ship that gets into the atmosphere will immediately be controlled by V’mog and his army.”
Janet smirked. “My new ship is not a machine, and she doesn’t answer to anyone but me.”
Janet’s ship descended in the clearing.
“Is that a giant worm?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
The plan worked! The dogs of the world began to grow and shed massive amounts fur. The vacuum machines couldn’t avoid rolling over it.
All that hair clogged up the machines’ inner workings. They stalled. Their shields went down. And when the dogs barked and leapt at the vacuum machines, knocking them down, the other people of the planet surged forward and started removing the power sources.
In the final scene, the heroes gathered. They slapped each other’s backs. They tossed out some quips. The camera tilted upward, the music surged, and the title again appeared. This time, Rhine’s echoing voice dramatically declared, “Attack…of the Vacuum Machine Army!”
The title faded, the credits began to appear. Everyone in the yard jumped out of their seats and gave the movie a standing ovation, complete with hoots and whistles, and fists in the air.
Rhine felt tears welling up in her eyes. She blinked them away. She would let herself cry later, and only in front of her crew. Only in front of her friends.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel