TODD by Turi T. Armstrong
Updated: Oct 7
Today, I decided to post my short story "Todd" from The Beginning and End of All Things. (Amazon affiliates link)
(written under my pen name, Turi T. Armstrong, that I have to separate my fiction writing from my editing business.)
I mention it in a post I am writing at www.bearhillpublishing.com and thought that since I talk a lot of game about writing, some readers might want to know if I practice what I preach. Considering the two books that I am working on have yet to be completed, and I spend all my other time writing blog posts and editing other people's work, this is the only thing I have readily available to post.
I hope you like it.
...and I realize it seems long. It won't feel so long once you get going, I promise.
by Turi T. Armstrong
(Taken from The Beginning & End of All Things, Science Fiction Short Story Anthology)
In that moment, we all deserved to die.
Every last one of us. The machine may have destroyed her body, but it was man that killed her.
For a long time, all I could see was her face when I closed my eyes. She wasn’t a dynamic image; I didn’t get to recall Joyce like some men remember their darlings, all slow motion smiles and spins, flashes of the sweet little moments through a sparkling fog of romantic maudlin. No, the image I was left with was the look on her face when that thing whittled her down to fit into the cavity in its middle. That compartment taking the place of a stomach. Its titanium plates dripped with her blood. And when I’d managed to sever a cable from its pelvic joint with a shovel, her blood streamed into it, and it sparked.
I remembered that.
You know, they all say it was the AI that got us in the end, but really it was a technology developed years before that did it. Somewhere along the line, some asshole came up with the brilliant idea to make a machine that gets energy from organic matter. Using the heat generated by the decaying process to charge its batteries.
Sure, it sounded great on paper. Nobel worthy, they said. The problems this could solve were endless, they said. Would change the world.
Well, change the world it did. Because like any other technology worth a damn, the army got hold of it. Before we knew it, they’d created walking war machines that could fuel themselves on their own carnage.
And then came the AI. I don’t know who made it happen, and I don’t know why they did it—I ain’t no science man— but somebody decided these artificial soldiers who were able to dispose of the bodies they made, should also be able to think for themselves.
Not a year passed before the machines figured out that fresh organic matter gives off more energy than the old, and that rotting meat gives off more energy than plant life. I hated those things. After one of them took Joyce, I was filled with more hate than any person could possibly contain. It left me blank and soulless. I was her husband. It was my job to protect her, and that purpose was the only thing keeping me going from the day they came down on us…at least until Todd.
Let me tell you about Todd. A real survivor that one. I often wonder what became of him. Knowing how things go, he’s probably dead. That seems to be the way it always goes. But I like to think that Todd made it somewhere safe and is watching the sunrise on a cold Alaskan coast somewhere.
Todd was the kind of feller you read about in books. He was smart and courageous and always had a plan. When he came to me that one fateful day, I knew he’d change my life forever, I just didn’t know how yet.
The Zots had leveled everything looking for a bit of something to devour. For something that might give them even the smallest amount of energy. It was what they were built for after all. The basic learnin’ skills of a toddler, and the instincts of a wrecking ball. Created by a species already spread like a plague across the world, the Zots spread and replicated themselves twice as fast as their makers. At the time I met Todd, that had been ten years ago. Ten long years since the world was normal. Since someone could live out their days not worried about becoming the power you could trust.
I spent my time scrounging like a raccoon, at night if I could help it. The days in Reno seemed then to be even god damn hotter than before the world ended if that were possible. It was like hell had opened up and sucked most everyone into the pit. Those of us left behind were doomed to wander this sweltering dustbin for eternity with the devil breathin’ down the backs of our necks.
That idea didn’t bother me so much then. All mankind deserved hell, and I was no different. I can’t say there’s ever been any room in my heart for strangers. The indeterminate We.
But one morning, when the air was makin’ waves of the world before the sun had even made it over the Silver Legacy, I heard a white noise, followed by breaking glass and finally the crumbling of stone and crashing metal. I normally wouldn’t emerge from my recess for such a thing, but that day, curiosity drew me out and led me down the road to a building that once had four solid walls but now had only two.
With no Zots in sight, I made my way through the rubble, looking for something that might be useful. A subtle scraping brought me over a heap to the interior of the building. I stumbled over concrete and rebar then looked down to see a fox. The first live animal I’d seen in so long it was alien. The mangy creature whined softly, probably learnin’ not to make much noise if it were to survive in this new world. Its leg was pinned under the rock and it scampered its front legs forward, trying to pull its way out with no success. When it spotted me, it didn’t recoil or bare its teeth, rather it froze.
I immediately thought of Joyce. She loved these wily critters. This one was a bonafide Sierra Nevada Red too, I think, though I ain’t no expert by half. Joyce would have known. For some reason, I liked the idea that the only surviving animal I had seen in almost a decade was something that was thought endangered before all this. The thing managed to survive the apocalypse but struggled to survive man.
I never did help it out. And I still mull over that decision to this day. Instead I decided to return to my hole in the ground and wait out the sun, but when I climbed back over the rubble, I noticed something else. What was left of the wall had been painted since I’d seen the building last. At least I was fairly sure it hadn’t been there before. There wasn’t much of it left now. Just the head of a neon orange arrow.
I shook off a queer feeling, deciding that it must have been there before, hidden behind something. Hell, I was getting old and hadn’t spotted it was all.
But on my way back, every few buildings shone like orange beacons. I could read these messages clear enough. Some were simple arrows pointing north, others were accompanied by ‘Turn Around.’ A few pointed south with the word ‘Danger’ or other similar warnings. The hairs stood on the back of my neck, but I wasn’t sure if it was due to the ominous nature of the messages or the fact that their existence implied I wasn’t alone in the world after all. It’s like Reno suddenly burst with life.
Now. You find yourself in a dark forest, you can quite quickly feel like the only living thing in it. That is until something big and bad approaches, and suddenly the birds take from the trees and rodents and snakes scurry past your feet. They was there all along, even if you couldn’t see ‘em.
I was out that night when Reno was still dark, morning was on its way, but no trace of it was in the sky yet. I had just enough time to finish scavenging and find my way back when I saw it. A jar in the distance shaped like a bear.
Someone must have dropped it at some point. It wasn’t even covered in the thick layer of red dust most everything is coated with out here.
I cautiously made my way toward it, making sure to move silently. I wasn’t gonna chance any Zots catching wind of me before I retrieved my bounty. I heard the click of a falling stone to my left and ducked inside the nearest open door into a two-story office building. From the outside, the heavily-tinted floor to ceiling windows only reflected back a hickory-hued visage of the world. Inside, my view was clear.
I crouched behind a dulled steel desk and peeked over the top, waiting for the coming Zot to reveal its position.
From around the corner of the alley across the street darted something that made my jaw drop and tighten all at the same time. A person. A real live person.
Even before Joyce had died, it had been ages since we had seen another human being. This one was a lithe young man, probably no older than thirty-five. He had hair so black it shone blue under the quickly disappearing moon. He tucked a spray can into the hiking pack he carried as he emerged.
I came out from behind my blind and crept forward. Curious more than anything else. As with the fox before, it was like seeing something out of legend—bigfoot; the ghost of civilization’s past.
I stared at him dumb until he went for my jar. I was ripped out of my daze and overcome with hate. This little bastard was going to take my honey. I ran for the window with a speed I shouldn’t be capable of at my age, ready to bang on it like a gorilla being taunted at the zoo. Just before I reached the window, a metal behemoth burst through the wall of the building across the road. Mere yards from the honey thief.
He took off down the street and the hungry Zot gave chase. I followed from behind the safety of the glass. Afraid I might lose sight of the action, I ripped open the stairwell door and heaved up to the second story. I reached the next window just as they turned the corner. I turned with them. The Zot gained quickly, but the man sprinted forward without so much as a glance behind him. He was fit, I would give him that much.
I scurried from window to window. Something carnal inside me savagely wanted to see him finished. The thing about to finish him was only feet away. They turned the corner again. I lost them.
Inside the building, I couldn’t hear anything, not a scream, not the sound of metal scraping and bones crunching. Nothing. Nothing but the quick thump-thump of my own heart. I pressed my face to the glass hoping to gain a few more inches of sight but I was sorely disappointed.
I would wait out the day there, and at least come nightfall I could still claim my prize. The rotten part of me thanked the Zot for coming when it did.
I awoke to the sun’s orange death throes streaking the ceiling, and within minutes it was gone. I crawled to the door, not bothering to stand, wildly tossing my head side to side like a deranged animal as I checked every direction for signs of that morning’s Zot. When I found nothing, I darted across the street, low enough to drag my fingers along the ground, and searched for my honey jar.
It was gone.
In the commotion, I must not have noticed that asshole take it, and now it had probably ended up in the belly of the bot. Hoping that I might get lucky again, I followed the route to the man’s demise, around the side of the building and down the alley to the back of it. There was no jar of honey in that alley, but there was something far more interesting. I had expected pools of blood and possibly a dropped article or two.
What I found instead was a heap of metal.
People are a pestilence on the earth. Like an unfinished round of antibiotics, you think the infection is gone, but unless you kill every trace, it’ll come back twice as strong the next time. I’d never seen nobody take out a Zot. I’d seen them try and fail. But in true human fashion, we figured out a way to destroy. To destroy the destroyer.
From the look of it, he had jammed a crowbar into its lower back and jumbled up some of its innards. Not an easy task, in my mind. The thing still buzzed like an old fluorescent light as it lay there, dead by all accounts.
The day had opened up a sore in my gut. From seeing the fox, then seeing the man—and now looking at the scraps in front of me, it was all too much to take. The black Reno night condensed on me. I shut my eyes tight and there was Joyce. Her face contorted and screaming.
Then I started kicking. I kicked and stomped until my legs hurt, my boots barely denting the outer shell of the Zot, crumpled on the ground. One of my kicks knocked the bar from the thing’s back, and I heard a sound like an old computer booting for the first time in years, buzzing and groaning. Turns out, whatever that man had done didn’t kill it, only put it on pause.
The humming got faster, and its body shook as it began to rise.
I ran like hell. Out of the alley and down the street. Moments later, the Zot’s metal feet clanged on the pavement behind me. I pushed my legs to move quicker, my left ankle aching from the fury I had unleashed a moment earlier. I didn’t know how I would escape or where I was running to.
Turns out, I was running to Todd.
I was coming up fast on a pile-up of abandoned cars. My only hope was to make it to one and hide inside, then jus