Hi there, Action Force. Today, instead of a short fiction piece, I’ve decided to post the opening chapter to my novel One of These Doomsdays. The novel is unsold at the moment, and while I work on the Constance Verity trilogy, it’ll probably be a while before Doomsdays sees print. I don’t know how much I’ll end up putting up, but if it gets a good response, we’ll see.
Speaking of response, feel free to leave a comment. Or, if you’d prefer a more direct message, e-mail me at HIPSTERCTHULHU@HOTMAIL.COM. I still feel as if I’m working in a vacuum at times, and it’s always nice to hear from fans (and potential fans). Hope you enjoy it, Action Force.
The cat was going to get him killed.
Felix ran. Under one arm, he carried the cat in a duffle bag. With his other hand, he held his tin foil hat in place. Rubber bands secured the hat, but he wasn’t taking any chances.
The melvin clomped noisily after him. He could picture its lurching gait, its whipping arms. He’d seen it a dozen times before, though they didn’t usually pursue him.
Technically, it was after the cat, but Felix wasn’t going to give that up, so the target was incidental.
It was just a cat. Except it was possibly the last living thing on Earth, other than him. Not counting microbes, he supposed. The robots probably didn’t have anything against microbes.
Everything else was fair game. The robot apocalypse had been swift, happened without warning. In a day, they’d wiped away all life and had done so with such efficiency that Felix had slept through the whole thing. He’d fallen asleep in front of the TV and awoke to a world without people. Not even corpses. It didn’t make sense. He’d stopped trying to get it to make sense and focused on surviving. It wasn’t much of an existence, being the last human in the city, possibly on the planet. He scraped by on frozen pizzas, scavenged beers, and an extensive DVD collection. And tin foil, that most miraculous of inventions that somehow interfered with the robots’ sensors enough to keep him alive.
He paused to catch his breath. The cat squirmed in the bag, and he squeezed it closer to his body. Felix ducked under an awning and listened. The melvin clanked, and the echo through the streets made it difficult to determine direction.
If he could get the cat back to his apartment, he knew everything would be fine. It was his sanctuary, the only place he was completely safe. In the unending game of robotic death tag his life had become, it was home base.
The cat mewed. He shushed it, but it only made more noise.
“Stupid cat,” said Felix.
The cat refused to be reasonable about this.
The melvin turned the corner. The robot stood eleven feet tall. It had a cylindrical body. Its arms and legs were multi-jointed tentacles. A featureless orb with a spinning ring like a miniature Saturn served as its head.
He called this model a melvin because of the way it moved. It leaned forward in a slouch, and it walked as if it might fall over. It was almost comical, but he assumed its pincers could crush his skull if it ever managed to grab him.
The robots, every single one of them, put a hum in his fillings. It was irritating, but a good early warning system. The melvin approached, and Felix resisted the urge to run. Sudden movement might draw its attention. The robots could track him better when he moved too fast. Especially once they saw him. Although they never truly saw him. They sensed him, like an anomaly worth investigating but they weren’t quite sure how to deal with.
He turned and walked briskly away. He’d escaped certain death more than once by simply strolling his way to safety. It didn’t work with all the robots, but the melvins were a bit stupid.
The robot scanned where Felix had been standing. It bent over and stared, although perhaps that was the wrong word because it didn’t have eyes, at the spot, trying to process it. By the time it decided there was nothing there, he’d be four blocks away and, with some luck, everything would work out fine.
The cat meowed. The melvin straightened, rotated in Felix’s direction.
It marched toward Felix who kept walking. He timed his steps with the machine. It seemed to help. Or maybe he only hoped it did. He slipped away as the robot scanned the street, inch by inch. He left it behind in its fruitless search.
“Stupid cat,” he whispered. “I’m trying to keep you alive.”
It couldn’t understand, but he wanted it to. Not just because it would make it a lot easier to get home, but because he needed to believe he and the cat shared a kinship across species.
Felix was lonely. So lonely he hadn’t realized how alone he was. You could get used to anything, but he didn’t want to go back to that. Not as long as he had the cat. He wasn’t certain he could go back. If he lost the cat, he might lose himself.
The cloudy gray sky mocked him. There was no sun, no moon, no stars. There was only the overcast blood red version of day and the misty gray twilight of night. If he were a scientist, he might understand it or come up with a better explanation than Weird Robot Stuff.
If he had been an engineer, he might have been able to explain why the city kept working. Why the subways still ran. Why the traffic lights hadn’t all broken. Why the plumbing hadn’t fallen to pieces. The only answer he had was that the robots were maintaining everything, but he never saw them doing it. Somebody had to be patching the concrete and trimming the trees growing out of their carefully arranged spots in the concrete.
Perhaps they were keeping it pristine and perfect for their true masters. Aliens. Or more intelligent robots. They weren’t doing it for him. He was the last blob of flesh of the old world, and when the masters came, they’d finish him off. He didn’t worry much about that because he could only live a day at a time.
But he wasn’t alone anymore.
He made it back to his apartment. Relief washed over him as he shut the door. He double-checked the tin foil on the walls, making sure everything was in place. He hadn’t survived this long by being sloppy.
He put his foil hat on the shelf and unzipped the duffel. The black cat poked its head out curiously. He scratched it behind the ears, and it purred.
“We’re safe now.”
The cat jumped out of the bag and rubbed against his legs, mewing.
“Bet you’re hungry.”
Felix removed the dozen cat food cans he’d pilfered from the supermarket. The robots kept stocking the shelves too for unfathomable reasons. He opened a can, set it down. The cat ate while he petted it. After, they sat on the couch and watched a movie together.
He wanted to cry.
He didn’t trust the situation. He didn’t believe it. He questioned the cat’s integrity. Its existence was too improbable. It must have cut a deal with the robots. It would lead them to his sanctuary in exchange for its own life. More than once, he looked into its green eyes, trying to gauge its trustworthiness. Briefly, he considered playing it safe and strangling the likely traitorous animal.
He was pretty sure he’d gone insane. Probably had gone mad years ago. It was only the cat that brought this to his attention. Another good reason to get rid of it.
“I’m going to trust you, cat. Don’t screw me over.”
The cat stretched across his lap. It looked so content, so innocent.
Felix went to bed. He kept one eye trained on his furry roommate. It took him over an hour to finally fall asleep, but when he did, he slept better than he had in weeks.
He awoke the next morning. The cat was gone, no doubt off to report to its robot masters, who were even now planning on storming the apartment. He had to get out of here. He had to find a new safe haven. He’d have to get more foil. He’d have to find a place with all the things he needed because moving all his stuff would be a pain in the ass. It would have to be a basement apartment. Something secure. Someplace where he wouldn’t be exposed.
The cat jumped onto the bed and meowed at him.
“Oh, thank God. I didn’t want to move.”
It had crapped in the corner, but he couldn’t get mad. He’d get some litter today. He fed it, refreshed its water, and watched it eat. He was fairly certain the cat could be trusted now, so he allowed himself to cry. Just a few tears.
He put on his foil hat, grabbed his duffel bag. “Sit tight. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
The cat acknowledged him by laying on the couch and licking its crotch.
Felix hiked back to the grocery store. He didn’t see a single robot prowling about. Unusual, but not unprecedented. There were days when the most he saw were hovering orbs on patrol, and others when he only heard the sound of the homicidal machines somewhere far away. Today was silent. Without the robots, the city was quiet as a grave, save for the hum of its electrical grid.
On days like this, Felix would notice the city itself. It was easy to overlook its empty nature when he was being pursued by robots, but when he had time to look around, he spotted all the things wrong with the city itself.
It was difficult to pin down at a glance, but the city was off in a lot of ways other than its emptiness. There were cars in the streets. Each one was parked with such precision, their wheels always three inches from the curb. Always. Felix had spent a day measuring and hadn’t found a single exception. There also weren’t enough to support a city of this size.
The size was another sticking point. It must’ve been huge in terms of square miles, though Felix had no way of measuring that. He’d never seen the end of it. But the size itself wasn’t what made it seem so large. It was the buildings. He had yet to find one under twenty stories tall, and upon inspection, he’d found most didn’t have anything inside them over the fifth floor. It was like a spectacular playset of the gods, but the gods had run out of pieces and just hoped no one noticed.
What bothered Felix the most was the sameness of it. There wasn’t much variation in terms of architecture and layout. The streets were laid out in a uniform grid. The buildings were square and functional, but lacking flourishes. It was a world without humanity or even the shadow of humanity.
Felix had once taken some spray paint and attempted to mark the walls with some expression of creativity. Not because he was any good at it, but just in an effort to make the city seem like a place somebody lived. He’d ended up painting a stickman with his stick dog, sitting under a stick tree. It was a lousy final statement for the human race, but it was something.
The robots cleaned it off within twenty-four hours.
He still did it when especially bored or frustrated. His art had moved from stick people to swear words and mocking illustrations of his robotic enemies. His magnum opus had been a drawing of a robot tripping on a banana peel. He wished he’d taken a picture of that before it had been erased.
There were flaws in the city. Cracks in the pavement here and there. Broken street lights. Flowers growing where they shouldn’t be, and doors that stuck. These flaws weren’t real though. The cracks were always the same shape and pattern. Every seventh street light would be broken. It was always a little white flower with three leaves and a stem that bent to the right.
Felix sometimes pondered if he was living in a virtual reality with a cut and paste design. It would’ve explained a lot, but it was also too sensible. If all of this came down to a simulation, it felt like cheating. There had to be more to it.
He was certain by now that he’d never know so it didn’t matter.
He grabbed some supplies without incident, and with a bag of litter over his shoulder, headed back home.
The eerie silence started to get to him. He didn’t want to see the robots, but he missed them. Had they all gone home? Had they left him here to live and die, alone, in this city? It was a question he didn’t dare ask because he’d learned to take his days one at a time.
And he wasn’t alone. He smiled. Nothing else mattered.
Back at his building, something was wrong. He always closed the apartment building’s street access door just in case the robots might notice such things. The door was open. Not just open, but forced open. The damaged jamb made him pause.
The smart thing to do would be to turn around and walk away. Never look back. He couldn’t abandon the cat. It hadn’t abandoned him.
He entered the building with caution and crept down the short hall leading to his apartment. His fillings said no robots were near. He pressed on, and as he neared his apartment, he heard it. Scratching. Pounding. Something was trying to get into his place. He poked his head around the hall corner. It was a woman.
She looked like hell. Ragged clothes. Tangled brown hair. She slouched against the door, hitting it with her fists. She smelled horrendous, like she hadn’t bathed since being born.
All things considered, he hadn’t seen anything quite so beautiful in all his life. He had his moment of mistrust but easily dismissed it. His fear of the cat had been unfounded. Things were looking up.
Felix stepped out slowly so not to startle her. “Hey, miss, I don’t know how you found me, but it’s not locked.”
Her face turned toward him, and if her sallow cheeks and the brackish drool dripping from her mouth wasn’t enough of a clue, there was also a shovel handle sticking through her guts.
The zombie shuffled toward him, arms outstretched.