Frank and Maria held hands over the table in the deserted café. He gave her hand a squeeze and smiled. The smile she returned was wan and insincere.
“It’s all going to come back,” he told her. “We can rebuild it.”
She glanced out the window at the empty streets, and slipped her hand out of his. Saying nothing, she hugged herself and stared at her feet. When she raised her head again to look at Frank her cheeks were wet. He handed her a napkin, and waited while she dabbed at her eyes.
“We have the robots,” he said, trying to sound hopeful. “They can help us put it all back together. You should know how effective they can be. You helped design them.”
Maria laughed, but it sounded more like a scream to Frank, like something that had been scratching at her from the inside and had finally clawed its way out. She patted his hand, wiped her eyes again, and rose to sway on trembling legs before steadying herself on the back of the chair. Frank looked up at her, trying to make sense of the panoply of emotions washing over her face. Pride gave way to sorrow, which then faded into resignation before she pulled it all together into a smile that signaled her imminent departure.
He watched as the trail of her bridal gown glided over a broken coffee mug, leaving it spinning in her wake. They had spent the whole day, going from empty store to empty store, until she had found the gown she wanted, modeling it for herself in the floor-length mirror before collapsing to the floor in tears. He had tried to comfort her, to reassure her that someday she would wear the gown at their wedding, but his words had done nothing to assuage her sorrow. As she entered the elevator he saw her double over, her body trembling as she strained against the weight trying to force itself up from her chest. Frank rose and started toward her, but she straightened and held out a hand. She smiled as the elevator doors closed and she ascended, leaving Frank alone. The image of an angel in a blood speckled gown played in a loop in his head. He held on to it, superimposing it over the dun-colored elevator doors until the sun reclaimed its light, consigning him to the vacuum left by his fading memories.
The whole world was empty now, though maybe it didn’t have to be. Maybe there was a way to bring Martha back to him. For now, all he had left was the hulking parody of a man waiting for him by the door of the café. He called to it, and the globe atop its cylindrical torso lit up, illuminating a path around the overturned tables and shattered dishes. Frank knew there was nothing for him out there in the street, but he had a strong desire to move, to get as far as he could from the city. It had become a graveyard, each empty shop and derelict taxi a memorial to a world that had abandoned him.
The quiet was the worst of it. There was something about the silence that made it hard to breathe, like he was walking underwater, his body not knowing how to react to the unnatural juxtaposition of the formerly bustling city and noises previously buried by the cacophony of human existence. The wind had new power, making its presence known in the creaking of a distant sign on its moorings, or a can clanging against the curb. The birds too added their voices to this soundtrack of the apocalypse, squawking as they picked at the bones of civilization. Frank ordered the robot to play something by Elvis, but made it stop after the first stanza of “Heartbreak Hotel.”
He wandered down the empty streets, the robot humming along behind him. Although fitted with two human-like hands on the ends of its tentacle-like arms, the robot had no legs. It hovered in the air, casting a red glow on the pavement beneath it. Capable of achieving a speed of twenty miles an hour, it featured a retractable platform at its base, as well as a magnetic hitch in the rear to accommodate any of the various carts lining the street. Once there were many such machines, employed in the transport of the sick to the hospitals and the dead to the burial pits at the edge of the city. Now, with no one left to bury, they sat in a warehouse, waiting along with the drones and the construction robots for a civilization that would never return. Occasionally, Frank would glimpse one of the more anthropomorphic service robots in the windows of the stores and restaurants, awaiting the customers who would never come, or standing beside a corpse in a booth, ready to take away a plate that would never be emptied.
Passing a bar, Frank spotted something flashing behind the plate-glass window. Wiping the grime off the window with his sleeve, he saw an old time jukebox tucked in the far corner next to a pinball machine. He tried the door, found it unlocked, and went inside.
Back in the days of the radio revival, his father had been an all-night DJ at an oldies station. After his mother had died, and he had been shipped off to live with his aunt and uncle, he would often sit up all night listening to his father’s program, knowing it would be the only time he would get to hear his father’s voice until the weekend. Then there was a plane crash, and there were no more weekends. Another voice replaced his father’s, but he still listened, imagining his father sitting with Buddy Holly and Little Richard as they picked out the songs they would play for him. The Jukebox was working, but he didn’t recognize any of the song titles displayed on the cards next to the buttons. I picked one that sounded vaguely familiar, and turned his attention to the bottles on the shelf behind the bar.
As he poured himself a shot of bourbon, a woman’s voice warbled out a ballad to the accompaniment of electronic beeps. It was the sort of thing Maria used to subject him to when on the rare occasions she managed to wrestle away the audio player. He took another shot, and then another. After a few games of pinball—and a few more shots—he was ready to rejoin the robot.
The full moon floated in a sky of slate gray, casting the shadows of the empty buildings across the field leading up to the burial pits. Frank hadn’t meant to come here, but finding himself in the place he felt compelled to make an examination. Perhaps he just needed confirmation it was all real, or maybe he just wanted to punish himself for not being down there, buried in the ground with the rest of humanity. Like so much in this new world, his motivations were a mystery even to himself. Still sober for some reason, he wished he had thought to bring the bottle.
He climbed up on one of the mounds of earth surrounding the pits and gazed out at the line of trees beyond the highway, wondering how long it would take for the wall of green to expand into the city. The pit to the left of the mound on which he stood was still open, only a thin layer of dirt covered the white shrouded bodies that poked up like skeletal fingers reaching for the moon. A backhoe stood next to the pile of dirt at the pit’s edge. Frank shouted down to the robot to try to interface with the machine.
The robot drifted over to the backhoe and stood behind it for several minutes, light flashing from the orb atop its shoulders as it scanned for a connection. The light strobed across the pit, and the skeleton fingers clawed at the earth. Frank ordered the robot to hurry, though he knew it wouldn’t make any difference. Finally, the light stopped flashing and turned green. The robot had made a connection.
“Fill it in!” Frank ordered.
The backhoe groaned as it came to life. It spit dust out of its joints as the arm swung over to nudge the dirt forward with its shovel. Satisfied with himself, Frank started to climb down off the mound when he heard a clang and turned to see a broken hydraulic line whip around and knock the robot to the side. As the robot tried to right itself the hose struck it again, sending it careening off into the mound just above him. He tried to get out of the way as it tumbled, but the robot hit him in the knees and pushed him down the slope. It landed on his legs in the pit. The weight of the robot crushed him into the mass of dead humanity as the backhoe continued to pile dirt in on top of him. He screamed at the robot, but got no response. It was as dead as the bodies beneath him.
More dirt poured down on him, and he felt his breath catch in his lungs. He reached out and shoved the half ton robot. To his amazement, it started to move. Gritting his teeth, he pushed again and it rolled off of him. To his further amazement, he found he could stand. He was staring at the legs that should have been bruised and broken when a cascade of dirt knocked him down again. Parting the earth with his hands as though it were water, he just managed to get out of the way before another pile came down upon him. Reaching the side, he clawed his way up out of the grave. Laying on the edge, he watched as the robot disappeared beneath the dirt.
It was only after the backhoe had finished bleeding out, sputtering to a stop with the last of the dirt still piled up between its shovel and the brink of the pit, that Frank tried to stand. Afraid his legs would crumble without sufficient adrenaline to power them and to block the pain he knew he should be feeling, he ran his hands over his thighs, probing for damage. They seemed to be intact. He bent down to examine them more closely. Other than a few tears in his pants, there was no evidence he had ever been pinned under the robot.
It cost him little effort to break into the shed where the gravediggers had kept their tools and to override the security code on the robot he found there. It was a bulkier model than the one he had lost, and it wasn’t a hover model, instead relying on tank-like tread for locomotion, but it had the platform at its base. Wanting to spare his legs any more distress, he climbed on to the platform and pulled the harness around his waist.
“Take me to Five-Two-One,” he commanded. The robot hummed and clicked while plotting a course to the outpost, and then rolled off in the direction of the highway.
The sun was rising by the time the robot pulled up before the corrugated metal walls of Outpost 521. A repurposed airplane hangar, it had been the site where he, Maria and Vic had plotted a new course for humanity, and where they had later failed to save it. As he entered the building, leaving the cumbersome robot outside, he felt the nostalgia of a man returning to the house where he had been raised. Maria had refused to set foot in the place since Vic had died and it had become clear their efforts to fight the plague were futile. To her it was a monument to their failure.
Frank took the picture of Maria and Vic from its spot by the coffee cup on the desk and sat on the cot they used to take turns sleeping upon. Looking at that picture was like reading a novel for the second time, knowing none of the characters would make it to the final chapter, their fate made all the more tragic for the dreams that died with them. Now all that was left was a faded image and some computer files to commemorate the aborted first draft where everyone wins in the end.
The files! Frank jumped up and rushed to the computer on the closest desk. He could rewrite the ending! They had digitized themselves, creating a record of everything they were, right down to the memories of their first grade field trips. All he had to do was feed the files into the printer at the main complex, and he would be having coffee with Maria in no time. He decided to test it using the outpost printer. It would only be able to create a duplicate at one sixth scale, but it would enable him to run the necessary tests. He clicked on the file labeled “Frank,” and heard the printer on the table across the room hum to life.
Two hours later he sat before a miniature naked version of himself. The twelve inch tall version would not respond to his verbal prompts. Something was wrong. It was little more than a highly detailed doll. Maybe the files had been corrupted. He logged back in and scrolled through the files in his folder, finding only the templates for his physical form. The files containing the records of his memories were missing. With trembling fingers he clicked on Vic’s file. It was complete, but there was something odd about some of the markers. He put on the visor that would let him view the memories contained in the files and punched in the security code. Suddenly, he was in his college dorm room. Everything was just as he remembered it, from the dirty laundry on the floor to the Jimi Hendrix poster on the wall behind the dresser. But why was this one of Vic’s memories? He hadn’t known Vic in college. He clicked another link and he was holding Maria in his arms, only they weren’t his arms, they were Vic’s. He took off the visor and tried to make sense of it all. Whose memories had he been looking at?
He tried to recall when he had first met Vic, but couldn’t. Although he was aware who Vic had been, he realized he had no recollection of interacting with him at all. It was almost was though he had invented the man. He put the visor back on and opened Maria’s memories. There was their first date, only Vic was the one sitting across from her. What the hell was going on? His stomach tightened and he could feel the perspiration on the back of his neck.
This was all wrong. He searched more of her memories, memories they had shared, and found himself in none of them. And what had happened to Vic? Vic was dead, but how did he know that? If he had worked with him so closely shouldn’t he have memories of his passing? He went down the hall to where the lockers were located. For some reason he remembered which one had belonged to Vic, even though he couldn’t find his own. It was empty except for a poster of Bo Diddly taped to the inside of the door.
The chorus of “Who Do You Love” was still playing in his head when he opened Maria’s locker to find a pair of jogging shoes and a stack of tattered romance novels. It had always amused him that a woman as brilliant as Maria had such lowbrow taste in literature. He picked up the one on the top, remembering she had been reading it in Geneva between conferences on biotechnology and molecular engineering. It featured one of those painted covers of a man holding a woman in front of a medieval castle that made these paperbacks indistinguishable from one another. He tossed it back in the locker, but something made him pick it back up. He had noticed something that hadn’t quite registered. There was something about the man in the painting’s face. It was his face! He thumbed through the dogeared pages until he came to a passage where the hero rescues the damsel from certain doom and read: “Oh Frank, I knew you’d save me!”
He flung the paperback away and slid down the wall to sit on the floor under the locker. It all made sense now. He knew why he had been immune to the virus and why he had been able to roll a thousand pound robot off of legs that should have been crushed. Maria had reacted to loss the same way he had. She had tried to recreate the person she loved. Only Maria hadn’t been able to quite pull it off. Maybe she just couldn’t bear to look at Vic’s face knowing it was being worn by a prop, a science experiment with no soul, loving her only because it had been programed to do so. Maybe she just couldn’t get the printer to work. She had ended up plugging Vic’s memories, with a few alterations, into a body she had already made when she and Vic had been experimenting with the process. The new Vic would wear a face copied from the cover of a cheap romance novel, but his brilliance, and possibly a little of his heart, would be preserved.
So that was it then, he thought. The last man on Earth had turned out to not be a man at all. All of it had been an illusion. Even those memories of his father and long summer nights listening to the radio under the blankets had been stolen from someone else. Nothing belonged to him. He wiped at his eyes with his sleeve and it came away wet. He stared at the wetness, amazed that he had the ability to cry. Machines don’t need tear ducts. He jumped up. Machines don’t need tear ducts because they don’t suffer sorrow! Not sorrow, nor joy, nor a sense of accomplishment when they learn a new song on their guitar or finally manage to place an order at that French restaurant without getting a sneer from the waiter. It was true, he wasn’t the last of the human race; he was the next step in humanity’s evolution. Maria had known it, and had equipped him with the necessary tools.
As the sun set over the scrap pile of human civilization, Frank rode on the platform of one of the robots toward the main complex, Maria’s template in his breast pocket. As he sailed over the burial pits, he noticed grass had already started to sprout on the mounds.
This story previously appeared in Navigating The Ruins 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Lamont A. Turner's work has appeared in over 200 online and print venues including Mystery Weekly, Mystery Tribune, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Christmas Gothic, and other magazines, podcasts and anthologies. His short story collection, "Souls In A Blender" was released by St. Rooster Books in October 2021. Check out his author page on Amazon.