The hum in Felix’s jaw told him it was a robot day. Even before looking out his window, he knew this was going to busy one. His fillings practically vibrated out of his teeth, and he had to pop some painkillers to concentrate.
A glance out the window confirmed the streets were crawling with robots. They were all trudging, rolling, and flying in one direction, and he was relieved to see them moving away from the apartment.
Then he realized they were heading in Gretel’s direction.
He sat on the couch and rubbed his jaw.
The cat rubbed against his legs to remind him to feed it. He checked the window. A goliath, huge walking tanks, stomped past. He hadn’t seen one of those in a while.
Orb drones swept over the city. They scanned every building for signs of life. Every time they cleared a building, they’d chime in unison. Then they’d scan it again, just to be sure. The other robots would pause hopefully, then continue on their way once no targets appeared.
They were looking for Gretel. If she had taken the time to collect some tinfoil, she’d be fine. If she hadn’t trusted him enough to take his advice, it was her own damned fault. If she expected him to risk his neck to go save her, she was an idiot.
He was a survivor. Like her. He didn’t take risks.
The cat rubbed against his legs.
“So I took a risk one time,” he said. “But you’re just a cat. She should know better.”
The cat blinked its bright green eyes, judging him.
“You’re really starting to piss me off, cat.”
Grumbling, Felix put on his foil hat. He’d never reach Gretel in time on foot, so he found the bicycle he kept in the back. He’d never used it, but it’d been in the apartment when moving in and he’d never gotten rid of it. It wasn’t in great shape, but it would work.
Once on the street, the robots continued to ignore him. Moving fast was always a chancy proposition, but if he’d wanted to play it safe, he would’ve stayed tucked away in his safe haven, watching TV.
He pedaled down the street at a leisurely rate. Faster than he could walk, but not much faster than a good run. The orb drones hovering overhead beeped as he sped past them. It might have been just a thing they did or they might have been alerting the other machines that a human was still alive. He tried not to think too much about it.
It was strange to suddenly not care about playing it safe anymore. When it’d only been him, alone, in this empty city, there’d been no reason to take any chances. Survival had been his only concern. It had been like an automatic reflex, an instinct to keep going though there wasn’t anything worth going on for.
It was all a question of numbers. Too many people made it all seem so insignificant. Not enough rendered it all meaningless.
With two people, it came into focus. He was the last man on Earth rushing to the rescue of the last woman. It mattered. Not in any significant, cosmic way, but in a way that would affect tomorrow and all the tomorrows beyond it.
Several melvins came clomping down the far end of the street. They scanned the area while the drones beeped steadily. They were looking for him. Under other circumstances, he would’ve turned and gone home.
He turned down an alley. An old soda can caught on his front wheel, and he tumbled forward, banging his head, skinning his elbow. The pain blurred his vision. He scrambled to pick up the bike, only to discover the cheap frame had bent in the crash.
An orb shrieked just overhead like an old steam whistle. Three melvins lurched into view from the way he’d entered the alley. A clunky goliath entered from the other end, boxing him in.
The goliaths were a cross between a tank and a spider, with eight long legs and a pair of cannons that served as a head. They weren’t much sharper than the melvins, but now that he was boxed in, how smart did they have to be?
A melvin reached out in his general area. It nearly caught him but snatched up the bicycle instead. Felix backed away slowly, holding his tinfoil hat in place with both hands. A trickle of blood ran down his nose from the scrape on his forehead. He ignored it.
The melvins inspected the bicycle like a puzzle they didn’t understand while the goliath trudged ever closer. The orb continued to whistle. Felix hugged the wall, and moved, ever so slowly, around the melvins. They twisted the bike like a pretzel before discarding it. The goliath’s cannon swept the alley from side to side. It made a heavy thunk sound like a shell being loaded into a chamber.
Felix had never been very smart. Or very tough. Or very much of anything. But if there was one thing he was good at, it was keeping calm. It’d kept him alive this long, and while some small instinct told him to run for it, he ignored that.
He slipped out of the alley, leaving the robots to search for a human that wasn’t there anymore. He’d lost his bike, but walking was safer. It’d been stupid to use the bicycle in the first place. It wouldn’t do any good to get himself killed on his way to save Gretel.
He briskly strolled to the rescue. The robots were out in force, more than he’d seen in ages. Melvin squads strolled through the streets. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of drones. He’d never seen more than one goliath in a day before. Today, he saw seven.
He walked among them without drawing attention to himself. As long as he didn’t run, the orbs didn’t notice him and as long as he didn’t get too close to the melvins, they didn’t spot him, though they were usually scanning where he had been only a few moments ago while looking for him. The goliaths were morons. At one point, one almost stepped on Felix, but even that had only been an accident as it trudged relentlessly on its way.
He reached the Overlook Hotel in fifteen minutes without incident. He worried for just a moment that Gretel had lied to him about calling the place home. He put those worries aside when he noticed the dozens upon dozens of orbs around the building. Gremlins, weird little robots built like headless monkeys, scaled the outside. They were scanning the place for her, and he only hoped they hadn’t found her yet.
More gremlins filled the lobby. They scuttled about, overturning furniture and searching through nooks and crannies. One of the gremlins bumped into him by accident, and it pinged. The other nearby bots gathered around the first. Their pings reminded Felix of excited chatter. He hopped over several, tiptoed toward the elevator.
He didn’t push the button. He had no idea what floor Gretel called home. He pondered searching floor by floor, room by room. It would be a lot of work, and he still might not find her. He wasn’t even sure she was here at all or that, if she was, that the robots hadn’t gotten her yet.
The elevator dinged. Its doors slid open. Gretel stood before him.
The gremlins pinged, turned in their direction.
Felix jumped in the elevator, stabbed the close doors button. It shut just as several gremlins skittered toward them.
Gretel held a small piece of tinfoil on top of her head with one hand.
“Good thinking.” He whispered. He wasn’t sure if the robots could hear him or not, but it seemed a wise precaution. “But that’s not going to work for long. I made you this.”
He pulled a foil hat from his bag. Glaring, she snatched it away, put it on. She was reluctant to use the rubber band to secure it, but she did so when he reminded her how easily tinfoil hats blew off in a strong breeze.
“I feel goddamn ridiculous,” she said.
She looked goddamn ridiculous, but he kept that to himself.
The elevator dinged. It opened to the lobby, where the dozens of gremlins continued their search. They noisily tore apart all the furniture as if Gretel might be hiding inside a cushion.
Felix pushed the close button again before daring to speak.
“I’m glad you’re alive,” he said. “I thought I might be too late.”
He expected a smile. Maybe some gratitude. Perhaps a mumbled thank you at the very least.
She said, “Robots? For real?”
“For real. You’re not hurt, are you?”
“I just spent over an hour hiding in the corner of the penthouse with a piece of tinfoil on my head,” she said. “The only thing hurt is my pride.”
“That’s good. Guess it’s a good thing you remembered to do that, right?”
He didn’t mention that she’d only known to do that because he’d told her to, and that if she hadn’t gone off on her own and stayed the night at his place, she wouldn’t have been in danger in the first place. It didn’t seem like the right time for an “I told you so”.
But he had told her so.
“What now, champ?” she asked.
He was surprised she was deferring to his judgment, but it was logical. He had plenty of experience surviving the robot apocalypse.
“We go back to my place. We walk, don’t run. We don’t make a lot of noise. And if the robots notice us, we go another way, always walking.”
She adjusted her hat. It wasn’t a perfect fit. He’d had to estimate the size of her head, and he’d gotten that right. But he hadn’t taken into account her hair, which refused to lay as flat as he would’ve liked. He wasn’t as confident that it would fool the robot sensors, but he didn’t see the point in telling her that.
The door opened once more. He nodded to her. She nodded back. He considered taking her hand, but maybe that was presumptuous. He’d been alone too long. He’d lost all his social skills, if he had any social skills to begin with.
For just a moment, he missed when it was just him and the robots. No Gretel. No cat. Just a guy, killer machines, and a DVD collection. You never knew what you had until it was gone.
They made their way through the lobby. Felix’s fears that Gretel might be vulnerable weren’t groundless. The gremlins definitely noticed her more than him, but the hat still worked enough that they couldn’t quite figure out where she was. Felix and Gretel exited the Overlook Hotel. The robots, perhaps responding to residual traces of her, focused on the building. Felix was sure they were safe.
Felix’s fillings burned in an unfamiliar way, and he winced.
“What’s wrong?” asked Gretel. She sounded genuinely concerned, which would’ve pleased him more if it didn’t feel like his jaw was about to melt.
The nearby clouds lit up with a brilliant blue flash and only a few hundred feet away, a thirty story building spontaneously collapsed.
That was the wrong word for what happened to it. It fell over, but instead of ending up as a pile of rubble and ash, it shattered like it was made of glass, then each of the pieces popped as if they were nothing more than soap bubbles. A cloud of red and yellow smoke was all that was left of it.
A herd of mechanical giraffes emerged from the cloud. He knew they weren’t giraffes, but they sure as hell resembled them with their elongated limbs and tall necks. These were new.
The giraffes trotted quietly to stand in front of the Overlook Hotel. Felix and Gretel kept walking, but they watched over their shoulder as the giraffes’ pointed their heads, pyramid-shaped protrusions, at the building as the gremlins, orbs, and melvins retreated.
“What are they doing?” she asked.
His teeth hurt too much for him to answer. The giraffes fired a blinding disintegrator bolt into the hotel. It collapsed into nothing but vapor. Quietly, efficiently, the robots scattered in all directions, satisfied they’d accomplished their mission.
“What the hell was that?” Gretel gaped. It was the first time he’d seen her gape. He hadn’t known her that long, but it seemed out of character. “Why the hell would they do that?”
The answer was obvious. Unable to find her, the robots had resorted to scorched earth tactics.
“That . . . that . . . I . . . ” She stammered, trying to form a coherent thought.
An orb floated closer. It pinged once.
Felix put his finger to his lips, and she stifled herself.
After the destruction of the hotel, the robot forces became a lot less alert. It wasn’t hard to get back to Felix’s apartment, and it was only after he shut the door and gave her the okay nod that she finally spoke up.
“That is some messed up shit.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty messed up,” he agreed. “I’ve never seen them do that before.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “Why would they disintegrate an entire building just to kill one person?”
He shrugged. “They don’t really seem to like people.”
“You don’t get it,” she said. “They’re robots. Aren’t they supposed to be logical? Do you understand how much energy it would take to disintegrate an entire building? It’s impossible. And if it’s not impossible, it’s goddamn inefficient.”
Felix grabbed a couple of beers out of the fridge. He handed one to Gretel. She took it absently, scanning the street from the window.
“We have to move,” she said. “We’re not safe here.”
He sat on the couch, petted the cat. “This is the safest place to be. You can take off your hat.”
She didn’t take it off. She ran her fingers around the rubber band securing it. “This is nuts.”
“Nuttier than zombies and giant ants?” asked Felix.
“I guess you’re right there, champ.” She smiled mirthlessly, sat on the couch with the cat between them. “How did you figure out that tinfoil thing?”
It was a question he’d never bothered to ask himself.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
The answer sounded wrong to him too. He strained his memory. He came up blank.
“I don’t have a clue. I guess I just knew.”
She didn’t believe him, and he couldn’t blame her. He didn’t believe himself.
He changed the subject. “How did you survive the ants?”
“I hid. Like you did. Except a place like this would never work. You need more radios. Tune enough of them from 89 to 94 megahertz and the ants will run in the other direction. The exact setting required depends on the barometric pressure.”
“Pretty smart. How’d you figure that out?”
The look on her face said it all. She was suddenly realizing everything he just had.
“This is weird, right?” She took a long drink. “This is fucking weird.”
“Fucking weird,” he agreed. “Want to watch a movie or something? I’ve got a bunch.”
“No, thanks. Think I’d rather go ahead and have sex if it’s cool with you.”
He wasn’t sure he heard her right at first. It was the way she said it, like she wasn’t that excited about it.
“Or we could just watch a movie if you prefer,” she said. “Whatever.”
“No, sex would be good. It’d be great actually.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, champ.” She started unbuttoning her shirt. “And don’t expect me to orgasm. For Christ’s sake, just accept that. I don’t want to have to tell you to climb off of me because of your ego.”
“No problem.” He expected, given the circumstances, this would all be over very quickly.
“Also, I don’t really like anything kinky. And don’t try talking dirty. I hate that shit. Some guys want to hold a fucking conversation.” She chuckled. “Fucking conversation. I didn’t mean it like that, but it’s kind of funny, huh?”
“Funny.” He took another drink of his beer. He didn’t like dirt talk either, but she was beginning to make this seem like a chore.
“Are you sure you really want to do this?” he asked.
“Why? You don’t want to do it now?” She paused unhooking her bra.
He stared at her chest before looking away. “No, but I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do.”
“What else are we going to do?” she asked.
It was a good question. An impossible question. The idea of talking for any length of time filled him with anxiety. They could sit quietly and watch a movie. There was safety in that, but it felt like a squandered opportunity. They were two people. They should’ve been able to relate to one another some way.
Sex was it. It wasn’t the best way. It wasn’t something he was even looking forward to. The years of isolation had reduced them to animals, but with the added burden of self-consciousness. At least sex was honest. At least sex didn’t involve talking.
He sat on the couch and tentatively, awkwardly, made a move. They kissed, a timid, frightened thing. Dissatisfying. Clumsy.
But it was honest, and it sure as hell beat talking.
They continued to make-out awkwardly, and it didn’t help anything that he wasn’t concentrating on the moment, but on everything else. His most pressing thought: Would the cat be jealous?
His hope was that with a little effort things would get better, and by the time they got to sex, it would be good.