The robots came the next day. Lot of them. Dozens upon dozens. More than Felix had seen in a long time, and the survivors played it safe by staying inside. Fortunately, they’d had time to prepare. They’d foiled the walls and brought a few more supplies from the nearby grocery store. They watched the patrols of melvins and titans wander aimlessly.
“Are they looking for us?” asked Bree. “Or just looking for anything?”
“I could never figure that out,” admitted Felix. “I know they’ll come after you if you’re not foiled, but I don’t know if they know we’re here and can’t find us or just patrolling out of due diligence.”
He called over Gretel and Bree and laid out some playing cards.
“Oh god, I don’t want to play any more card games,” said Gretel, “and if you’re going to show me another of your perfect solitaire games again, I’m going to shoot somebody.”
“We’re not playing cards. I think I know what’s happening to us. Well, not the what. Or the why. But I think I can break it down into something we can understand.”
He laid out a row of four cards on the table.
“These cards are us.”
“Which one am I?” asked Bree.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Can I be the ace of spades then?”
“I told you,” said Felix. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Then if it doesn’t matter, I want to be the ace of spades.”
Felix thumbed through the deck, found the ace, and replaced one of the cards.
“Can I be the four of diamonds?” asked Gretel. “Four is my lucky number.”
“Fine. Four of diamonds.” He slammed the new card on the table. “That’s you.”
The cat rubbed against his leg. “Don’t tell me you have a preference.”
He spread the cards so they weren’t touching each other.
“This table is the city, and each is a card placed on the city. Gretel, Bree, the cat, me.”
“That’s not me,” said Bree. “You pointed at the wrong card.”
“Bree, Gretel, me, the cat,” said Felix.
“I thought the cat was the seven of hearts,” said Gretel.
“It was the last time,” agreed Bree.
Felix gritted his teeth. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make a difference. Can we just get on with the explanation?”
“Okay, so these cards are each of us. We all started out on the table, but we were all spread out. Same table, but different cards, not touching. And the cards aren’t just us. They’re our particular doomsday. Robots, ants, zombies, and dragons. And as long as our cards aren’t touching, our doomsdays don’t overlap. That’s how it’s been for as long as any of us can remember, right?”
“Except now, for some reason none of us can explain, the cards are starting to get mixed together.” He took the cards and stacked them on top of each other. “Now we’re all together, but the doomsdays still aren’t mixing. They’re still coming one at a time, but in a consistent pattern. Like this.”
He took the top card and put it on the bottom of the slim deck and repeated the action several times, being extra careful to get the matching doomsday with each card. “Zombies, dragons, robots, ants. I bet that’s the way it goes from now on until someone else comes along and brings their doomsday with them.”
“How do you know there will be someone else?” asked Bree.
“I don’t, but can we be surprised if there is? If this table is the city, and this pile of cards is us, then we can probably assume there are more people, more cards, out there.
We just haven’t overlapped yet.”
“You don’t really think it works that way?” asked Bree. “Cards on a table?”
“Of course not. It’s just the best model I could think of.”
Gretel sat at the table. “There’s a problem you haven’t thought of. Each of us only survived the other’s doomsday because we ran into each other. We’re all experts at dealing with our problem, but the odds of us surviving outside of it are slim-to-none. If you hadn’t shown me the tinfoil trick, those robots would’ve killed me. If Bree didn’t know about the rations, we’d be dragon food.”
“I’d thought of that,” he said. “Lucky we ran into each other then.”
“No. It’s not luck,” said Bree.
She paused for no logical reason other than drama.
“Someone is controlling it.”
Gretel laughed dismissively. “Not necessarily.”
“How else would you explain it?” asked Bree. “Someone’s has to be doing it on purpose.”
“Or it’s just the only way it could work out.” Gretel picked a random card of the table. “Let’s say this guy is surviving the pirate apocalypse, right now.”
“Pirates?” asked Bree and Felix together.
“Not pirates then. Space invaders. Giant Asteroid. Ghost dinosaurs. Whatever.
“So ghost dinosaur guy has the ghost dinosaur apocalypse nailed down. Piece of cake. But then one day he wakes up, and he’s in the middle of the robot apocalypse. He’s completely screwed over because he doesn’t know shit about how to survive. So the robots kill his ass before he does.”
She tore the card in half.
“He’s dead. Game over. And Felix never knew he was around and didn’t even think to look for him in the first place. We weren’t chosen. We aren’t being manipulated. We’re just the lucky ones. And the unlucky ones get eaten by ants or zapped by robots before anyone else even notices.”
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” said Bree.
“I used to not believe in giant ants or zombies. The world, or wherever the hell we are, doesn’t give a shit what you believe.”
“You tell yourself that when we all wake up in someone else’s doomsday with no tin foil or string beans to protect you.” Gretel grabbed the cards and tossed them all in the air. They scattered through the air, falling to the floor.
“Do you really think there will be more people?” asked Bree.
“I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised.” Felix leaned down and picked up a card. “There could be dozens. Maybe hundreds. Hell, I don’t know. Maybe thousands.”
Gretel grumbled. “You don’t know any of that. You’re just guessing, and it doesn’t do us a damn bit of good to sit here making up wild theories.”
“What the hell do you want to do?” asked Felix. “We can’t just survive. We have to do something.”
“There’s nothing to do but survive.”
Felix and Gretel stared blankly at each other. The only sound was the soft hiss of Bree’s gasmask.
“I’m not going to die because you refuse to be realistic,” said Gretel.
“Fair enough,” he replied. “But I’m not going to give up just because you have.”
He waited for her to hit him. Or to get mad. Or to shout. Something. Anything. Her face remained cool. Unreadable.
She walked out of the room without saying another word.
He wanted to follow her. He wanted to give her a hug. Not out of some misguided romantic obligation. He wasn’t sure if he even liked her. But it still seemed like something he should do.
All the stuff that normal people did, none of that was easy anymore. Since he couldn’t remember anything about his life before this, maybe it never had been. He hated that it was so damn hard.
He looked to Bree for rescue, painfully aware that hoping for emotional stability from a human who had never even shown her face was probably not the best choice.
“Let her go,” said Bree. “She’ll work it out for herself.”
“We’ve been doing that too long,” he replied.
He couldn’t say if she was smirking under her mask, but it sure as hell felt like it. “Anybody ever tell you you’re a weird guy?”
The problem with self-reliance is that, taken too far, it wasn’t a virtue. It was a barricade.
Felix didn’t say that to her. He didn’t want to deal with her judgment. Somehow, hidden behind the mask, it was worse than Gretel’s. If they could talk. Just talk. They might be able to connect in a way normal people were supposed to. But Gretel couldn’t do it. Bree couldn’t do it. As far as he could tell, they didn’t want to.
He wanted to, but he couldn’t do it all on his own, and he couldn’t keep trying. It was just too hard.
Bree snapped her fingers. “Felix, you still there?”
“I’ll be in my room,” he said. Or maybe he didn’t say anything at all and simply trudged wordlessly upstairs to his apartment. Even he couldn’t tell for sure anymore.
And it didn’t matter.
His previous apartment, the one that had been attacked by dragons only a day ago, had been fixed with the reset. He’d changed places because of that. The undamaged couch and unbroken windows reminded him of the prison he was in.
He’d taken up residence on the apartment next door. He sat on its plaid couch, staring at the ceiling, for at least an hour. He thought about watching a movie, but it seemed like too much work. But even ennui was no match for boredom, and when he worked up enough energy, he explored the apartment, room by room.
It reminded him of an old person’s home littered with doilies and porcelain figurines and a small television hooked up to a VCR. The bathroom was full of pink with little plastic fish stuck to its walls. The bedroom smelled of vanilla and mint.
There were no pictures, no photographs. There were frames for them, and he found five thick photo albums in the back of the hall closet, but they were all empty. Not even the attractive (but not too attractive) models that came with photo frames.
The place was spooky. A hotel room was intentionally generic to avoid feeling like you were sleeping in someone else’s home. A home could be comforting. This place was neither.
He’d had the same feeling when first settling into his basement apartment, but over time, he’d made it his own, gotten used to it. First thing tomorrow, he’d take all the plastic off the furniture.
The cat had watched him in his search, more curious to Felix’s actions than anything he might find. It found a space on the kitchen counter, and he didn’t have the will to push it off.
It purred contentedly from its perch, ignorant of the trap they were in.
“There’s a way out,” he said.
The cat’s tail flicked.
Someone knocked on his door. He checked the peephole before answering. He didn’t know why. It was Bree. He opened the door.
“Are you okay in there?” she asked.
He tried to see her eyes through the lenses of her mask. They were brown. Or green. Maybe blue. That could’ve been a glint of the light.
“I’m okay,” he lied.
She spoke so quickly, it was obvious she hadn’t been listening for his reply. “Do you want to come down to the basement?”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
Bree laughed. He hadn’t gotten used to the weird way it sounded through the mask. “Nothing’s wrong. I just was inviting you down there. We could hang out. Or something.”
The possibilities in that filled him with unease.
“No. Thank you.”
He hoped she would retreat to her basement. She pushed the door open and walked past him. He noted the gun tucked in her belt. His own weapon was in the bedroom. Way too far away.
“We can hang out here, I guess,” she said. “Nice place.”
“You’ll have to excuse the décor,” he replied. “I didn’t pick it out.”
She grabbed an empty picture frame and studied it. She straightened a cheap oil painting of an ocean landscape. “It’s cute. This way to the bedroom?” She was already halfway into it when she asked.
He hesitated. If she was here to kill him, she was taking her sweet time. If she was here to do something else—
Felix hoped she was here to kill him.
He considered walking out of the apartment, closing the door, and avoiding this mess. Instead, he followed her into the bedroom, daring only to put one foot in the room. She’d laid her gun beside his on the nightstand. It felt presumptuous on her part. Too intimate for a couple of strangers.
Bree lay on his bed. He wasn’t sure if the pose was supposed to be seductive or not, but she was on her back, her arms behind her head, one leg bent over the other. If she’d been naked, it might have been appealing, but fully clothed, it came across as mixed signals.
“Want to have sex?” she asked, clearing things up considerably.
Felix had imagined a world where women were more forthright, where the games of dating were less fuzzy. Not that he could remember dating, but he still had a vague sense that it wasn’t usually this easy to get women into bed. Being the last man on Earth no doubt helped a lot.
He hated that it seemed kind of empty. It wasn’t because it was casual. It just seemed like they were going through the motions here. Last man on Earth. What other options did Bree have?
He sat on the bed, took off his shirt.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Ewww. Don’t do that.”
“But I thought you wanted to . . . . ” He was unsure how to finish the sentence. Have sex seemed too mechanical. Fuck seemed too passionate. Do it seemed just plain stupid.
“I’d prefer it if we just unzipped,” she said. “Why bother with all the other stuff? It’s all just neural stimulation, right?”
“I happen to like neural stimulation,” he said softly.
Bree joined him at the edge of the bed. She put her arm around his shoulder. Her gasmask hissed steadily.
“Want me to whisper sweet nothings in your ear?”
“Forget it. I’m not in the mood anymore.”
He stood, but she grabbed his sleeve. “Wait. I’m sorry. It’s been a while since I’ve been around people. And I wasn’t very good at it before. I think. I don’t really remember. But assuming the person I was wasn’t very different than the person I am, it’s a safe bet.”
“Me neither,” he said, “I think.”
He still hadn’t gotten used to his lack of a past. He’d spent years oblivious to its absence, but now that he’d noticed it, he didn’t know how to ignore it.
“It’s funny,” she said. “You adjust to living without no future, but no past either and you just don’t feel like a person.”
“No, you are a person.” Felix sat back on the bed. “We are people.”
She flopped back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. “You don’t know that.”
He was getting tired of people telling him what he didn’t know when he already knew he didn’t know. Trying to wrap his head around that sentence only annoyed him more.
“We are people.”
He was thankful she didn’t challenge him again on it. She might have broken him if she had.
“It’s okay if you don’t find me attractive,” she said.
“It’s not that . . . .”
He looked into her mask.
“All right, maybe it is that. I’m sure you’re an attractive woman, but it’s difficult to tell under all that stuff.”
“Didn’t think you were that superficial,” she said.
He felt like a jerk.
“I’m busting your balls, Felix.” She nudged him with her boot. “I get it. The mask and the three layers of clothes. It’s kind of weird.”
“Don’t you ever take it off?” he asked.
“Oh no. No no no no. Not around people. That’s a good way to get sick.”
“Because of the dragons?” he said. “You’re sure they make people sick? But Gretel and I haven’t gotten sick.”
“You won’t,” she said, “but I have a compromised immune system.”
“Have you ever gotten sick?” he asked.
“No. Not as long as I take precautions.”
“But if you’ve never tested it, how do you know?”
“How did you know tin foil keeps robots away? It’s just something I know.”
It sounded like paranoia to him, but it didn’t mean she was wrong.
“Is this because of Gretel?” she asked. “Are you two a thing?”
“Didn’t think so.”
He didn’t mention his awkward sexual encounter with Gretel. It wasn’t relevant. Though the idea of another uncomfortable, fumbling experience filled him with unnamable dread.
He said, “I’m not going to lie and say sex has to be special to be good. But it would be nice to get to know you before.”
She pushed up on her elbows. “My name is Bree. My dad’s name was Edmund. Now you know everything I know.”
“You remember your father’s name?”
She nodded. “Feel better?”
The door to the apartment closed. He heard the click, but might have thought he imagined it if Bree didn’t confirm it. They went to the living room. Nobody was there. Felix went to the door, opened it, saw the door on the other side of the hall close.
He knocked on the door. “Gretel, is that you?”
“Gretel, I know you’re in there.”
The door opened, and Gretel stood slumped on the other side. She couldn’t look him in the eye. “Sorry. I thought you were alone.”
“We were just talking.” It sounded like an apology. He couldn’t say why.
Bree, her arms folded, staring at her nails, stood in his apartment doorway.
“It’s cool,” said Gretel. “None of my business.”
“It’s not like that.”
Gretel held up her hands. “I should have knocked first.”
She sounded hurt. She couldn’t hide it. He would’ve found that obnoxious if he didn’t feel like he’d betrayed her. They’d known each other only a few days. They’d slept together exactly once. And it was, for both of them, the longest relationship they’d had with another human being.
He imagined himself in her position. Sitting across the hall. Working up the courage to come over. Not knocking because knocking would give the other person the chance to say no. Pushing past all the trepidation and awkwardness, hoping she wouldn’t look stupid.
Finding Felix sitting on the bed with the only other woman on earth. She was reading too much into it, but he couldn’t blame her for that.
“You don’t have to explain, champ,” said Gretel. “It’s the end of the world. Not like any of it matters.”
It mattered more than he could fathom. In a world with a million souls, what difference did three people make? In a world of only three people, everything they did was important. It was as if they held all the emotions of humanity among them, and one moment of awkwardness, of fear, of quiet loneliness was multiplied a thousand times by the experience.
He’d hurt her. He hadn’t thought he could, but somehow, he had. The hell of it was that he hadn’t done anything wrong. He had every right to sleep with Bree.
It was only when the door clicked shut quietly that he realized Gretel had closed it on him. He didn’t knock again.
“This is all too complicated for me,” said Bree. “You know where to find me if you figure it out.”
She went downstairs to her basement.
Felix stared at Gretel’s door for a while. He wondered if she was on the other side, watching him from the peephole. The door stood between them, and all she had to do was open it.
He reached for the knob. She might have left it unlocked for him. He put his hand on the old, cold brass fixture, but he didn’t turn. Unlocked. Locked. He wasn’t ready for it.
He felt more alone than he ever had when surrounded by killer robots.