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  • Writer's pictureTessa Barron

TODD by Turi T. Armstrong

Updated: Jan 19

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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 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.

Oh well.

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 just pray that thing didn’t find me. The closer I got, the more unlikely that outcome seemed. It gained on me faster and faster. But out in the distance, from behind the canopy of an old Ford, popped up that head of black hair. He jumped down and ran at me full on. Instinct told me to run back the other way, but adrenaline threw me forward. I readied myself to attack if need be. I started devising plans to grab him as I flew by and throw him to the Zot.

As I got closer I could better see his features. The man looked…I can only describe it as serene. See, Todd always had a calm look to him and a smile that said he had all the knowledge in the world. He knew something you didn’t. He ran until he reached me then turned one-eighty and ran back the way he came right by my side.

We sprinted together for about half a block before I saw my chance. An open manhole under one of the vehicles. I could slide in and hide. Depending on what was down there, maybe even make my way further north from below. It would take time to crawl in, but if I could manage to trip the fool beside me at just the right moment, I might stand a chance.

I was mere seconds from executing my plan when Todd pulled ahead and, with a swing of his chin, pointed to an alley coming up on the right. He dashed down it. Dammit. I followed, and we found a fire escape up the side of a crumbling four-story. Not that ladders are a particular challenge for these things, but they were made more for knockin down doors and stoppin’ tanks, not climbing. It’d follow, but it’d be slow going.

Once we found an open window, we crawled inside, got to a bathroom and hunkered down in the tub. See, bathrooms are the best place to sit and wait out these things. You stay still long enough and keep real quiet, they should pass you by. The tub keeps you from being spotted under the door by heat sensors. At least if you’re lucky.

It was intimately squeezed together in that tub that I first got to know the man that is Todd. Well…as much as you can get to know someone, sitting in a cramped space speaking fabricated sign language while waiting to see if you die a violent death in the near future.

I sat grieving for my failed plan to escape both him and the Zot, but my thoughts quickly drifted to amazement that I was looking at another human being so close up. I’d come across not one but two living things in the past day.

Though, like the birds taking from the forest trees, I should have known something big was coming.

He humored my glares for a while then pulled out his wallet and showed me his Utah driver’s license and stretched out his other hand to shake mine. Still smilin’ like we were meeting for the first time at a local watering hole, not under a rusted-out shower head. But the detail that was the fascinating was this had to be the only man left in the world who still bothered to carry around his driver’s license. Never made no sense then, and it still don’t now.

Todd Hule Stanton, it said.

What a name. Maybe that was why he carried the card for all those years. So he had a reason to show people that full, irrepressible name.

Hours must have passed in that tub, looking over Todd and the glint in his eye contrasting the raven black of his hair, and other such features for as long as was comfortable, then spending the rest of that time staring at the wall or the insides of my eyelids. Eventually, I heard him speak. A deep baritone, yet jovial, quick, and just on the brink of joking.

He told me all about where he was going and from where he had come. Utah, working as a night manager at a small town K-mart, making a surprisingly decent living. Unmarried and raising two sons by himself. The way he spoke of them gave me the impression that nothing bad had ever happened to them in their whole lives. But he never gave any indication that they’d traveled with him either. If not with him, then with who? They were dead, but he never said it. He didn’t have to.

I was one of the lucky ones, I suppose. I had lost my own boy back in Texas, twenty years before all this started. The one thing I was always grateful for was that he didn’t have to live in the world as it is now.

Eventually, we stretched our cramped legs and slithered out of our hole.

I should have hated Todd. In my bones, I wanted to hate him for his mere existence like I did everything else. But I couldn’t. The way he talked like a bass guitar and walked with a bounce while still managing to drag his feet, calmed my soul and kept the ghost of Joyce away.

I convinced myself that if I were to survive I needed to stick with him. He would prove himself as base a creature as any other man, and I would leave him for dead somewhere out of the city.

We wandered the apartments on each floor, looking for supplies and chance foodstuffs. As we pilfered cabinets and ransacked through the memories of lives forgotten, we talked about the future and Todd’s hopes for such a thing. Splayed on the cracking leather couch inside a three-bedroom corner unit, hazy with the light of the comin’ morning, he folded his arms behind his head and told me about Alaska. How he longed for the cool air and the icy waters. But Alaska wasn’t the destination. He waxed about some place off the northern coast of Canada, under the Alaskan border. Port Edward, a small town where his mother sprouted from a few generations of cannery workers. She’d birthed him in the family home before meetin’ his step-daddy and uprooting him to Utah.

Todd was bred for the cold, salt-water air. Born for the sea, and he was going back to it, so he said. As I watched him tell the ceiling his dreams with a look of complete tranquility, I admired how much zest for life he seemed to have. How even after all the horrors men like us saw on the day to day, he could still find the nerve to look ahead to a time where he would no longer suffer. I realize now, that was a sort of miracle in itself.

Maybe I’d just been too old. Coming up on retirement when the Zots hit, I coulda—maybe shoulda—laid down and let myself die right then. But I didn’t. After Joyce, and before Todd, that felt like one of the great regrets in life, but after Todd, I realized that was just short of a miracle in itself.

While we sat, I asked him how he’d managed to take down the Zot in the alley. To my disappointment, he only gave me a snort and a shrug. He told me how the thing had cornered him, and he’d just started swinging. He hadn’t even been sure he got it until I confirmed it for him. Just lucky, he guessed.

The next day we loitered on the outskirts of the building for a time until we were confident the war machine had moved on, at which point we headed along the road. Every once in a while Todd would stop to paint a warning on the side of a building. He told me some horror story about all the Zots amassing in a big army just south of us. Honestly, it all sounded a little cracked. I’ve seen these things work together before if that’s what you wanna call it. But there was nothing intelligent about it, more like the small scavenging after the big. When their best energy sources got scarce in those last few years, you’d see them competing when they’d come upon each other. When I was a young boy, robot battles were something I used to fantasize about, but the real thing wasn’t nearly as cool as I had imagined.

Todd’s story sounded something like the fantasies of a little boy.

But he spotted the pulsing reflection of the sun’s light on metal in the distance, it wasn’t long after we heard the groan,pisss, sch-twank of the Zots, and light materialized into hefty steel and resin bodies. After a few moments, I realized there was definitely something different about the sounds coming from this group. I voiced this opinion to Todd, though he didn’t appear to be particularly worried at the news. The look in his eyes said ‘I told you so’ even if his mouth didn’t. He led me through a broken window of the Eldorado, now just the Eld-o-do. Inside, we scuttled around mildewed sculptures—Tritons blowin’ into conch shells, and white horses galloping out of the turbid fountain water. Finding the stairwell, we wound our way up to the sixth floor and by the time we arrived, I was grasping at my chest.

Todd’s presence parted the thick dust in the air as he made his way to the time-sooted window and inspected the goings on below with the mystique of an angel watching man’s exodus from Eden.

I dragged myself over to the window beside him and placed my hand on the ledge in an effort to keep my knees from givin’ out. I looked down at the street and feasted my eyes on a horde of Zots like I had never seen. It was said they’d made about two thousand of these things in the beginning, and it only took five or six to decimate a town. Once they started replicating themselves, things got out of pocket, you might say. I have come up against groups of three or four but never anything like this.

Todd glanced my way for a second and smiled a sorrowful smile. But I could tell the shadow in his eyes was cast for me. He probably could have stayed ahead of this thing if not for the old man he’d been dragging around for two days at this point. I resented that look.

He chuckled, a dark bass rhythm from his diaphragm, as he looked out below. The machines climbed over and around one another. If I were to think of a robot army, I would have envisioned some clankin’ high-stepping fourth reich. But this was more like watching a river of titanium rats the way they clawed at each other.

They obliterated everything in their wake, leaving Zot bodies in twisted mounds on the street. The ones on the edges of the rolling pile of metal broke off and crashed through the windows of buildings, ransacking the offices and shops like looters in a riot.

I stood mesmerized by the sight until Todd grunted something about them getting desperate. I looked closer. He was right. They weren’t just climbing over each other, they were ripping the weak apart, pilfering the precious resources from their cavities and leaving them to rust in the Nevada sun. The others weren’t ransacking but were frantically looking for something to fuel themselves before shutting down.

In the distance, stragglers, apparently low on juice, walked ever slower before stopping altogether. These wouldn’t be the first Zots I’d seen who’d run down their batteries. Every once in a while you’d come across a body still in its last position, mid-movement, an everlasting statue commemorating the end of the world.

And then they made it inside.

The Eldorado’s steel frames grieved as the machines started their demolition. Too soon, they crashed their way up the stairwell. They grew steadily louder. It was only a matter of time until they reached us. My hands started to tremor, and my first thought was to pull Todd to the door and throw him in before he could do the same to me.

Todd reached for my shoulder, and I panicked. Stumbling back, I ran for the nearest exit—Todd calling my name. I continued running, not sure where the next door would take me or what surprises might be waiting behind it. The first one I came upon led me to a large windowless corridor. It went pitch-black as the heavy fire door fell shut on my backside. I stopped running and tiptoed my way along the wall looking for another door. I grabbed a handle in the dark. Locked. I went onto the next and next, finding the same. Finally, a latch clicked, and I turned the handle, but it wouldn’t open. I held my breath. Just as I stepped back, the door came bursting off its hinges, and a Zot crashed through, slamming against the opposite wall. The dry-rotted gyprock crumbled around it as it staggered to its feet.

The flood of bright light now streaming in from the bare doorway and clouds of old dust and plaster stung my eyes. I scurried away but struggled to see anything at all. I reached for a door. It would be locked, but I didn’t care. It would open for me now. I backed to the far wall then ran, throwing all my weight at the door. My shoulder cracked on impact, and I bellowed a sound I’ve only ever heard before when shooting bucks. The Zot came at me, and I threw myself at it again. This time, the frame gave way and the door swung open; the Zot flew past me down the hallway. I stumbled into a stale hotel room, sweltering from the bright afternoon sun. I dove into the bathroom and locked the door. Dragging myself into the tub, I laid down and tried to steady my ragged breath.

The pain in my arm grew, and I shut my eyes tight. I could hear the Zot in the room now, the hiss of its hydraulics as it made slow movements, looking for me. No matter how hard my adrenaline tried to keep me awake, I slipped in and out.

The last thing I remember was Joyce’s face. But this time, she wasn’t looking at me through horrified dead eyes. She was shaking her head, disappointed. She had come back to life just to tell me what a failure I was.

I drifted off.

When I woke, Joyce’s face was replaced by Todd’s. He poured some rancid tasting water down my throat and ma