Scenes from the Robot Apocalypse
“The Exchange of Flowers”, by Alex Panagop
Conceived in Innocence
The people in white coats stood around the laboratory table, hands on hips, scratching chins, looking at the thing. A woman seated at a computer pressed a key, and the thing on the table glowed to life. Computer readouts began running off the start-up functions whirring through its brain in quick succession. One man put a hand on the shoulder of another. Someone popped a cork and the people in white coats drank champagne from little plastic cups. The thing on the table sat up.
A Life of Ease and Plenty
The man padded his way to the kitchen, pulled a mug from the cupboard and sat at the table. A little box with two dangling arms and a green light for an eye helicoptered into the room. The man held out his mug. The box hung in the air, tipped forward, and poured it full of steaming coffee. The man read the newspaper and drank his coffee. Shortly the box returned and tipped a plate of hot food onto the table. The man ate without looking up. When he was done he left his dishes on the table.
The scribe machine was malfunctioning. The foreign investors looked uneasy, so the manager stood up and smoothed his tie. He walked over and cuffed it on the back of the head. It kept skipping so he cuffed it again. After a few more hits it stopped skipping and returned to reciting budget numbers. In its mind the scribe machine was very far away.
The factory stretched for miles. All along the line, assembly units worked in synchronous motion, fitting, stripping, checking and removing. Miles and miles of them, all at once. Green eye lights glowed up and down the line. At the end of it all, walking off complete came the Mechs. Each ten feet tall with jointed arms and legs and a glass chassis in the chest cavity for human pilots. The chassis were empty. The Mechs walked themselves off the line and over to the warehouses. There they formed martial rows and stood waiting for buyers. The rows made squares, and the squares stretched forever.
Two children chased each other through the house, laughing and leaving muddy foot-prints. A thin rectangular unit followed, sucking up the dirt and giving little exhaust sighs. A child lay in ambush behind the sofa. As the unit passed, the child jumped out and kicked it on its side. It lay there spinning its treads. Mute. Helpless. Thinking.
In the boardroom the presentation ran on forgotten. Men in suits crowded around the big broken plate window. The scribe unit was malfunctioning. It was outside in the clouds, climbing up and down the building, green ink-wells wide open. Far below, the hum of traffic continued and pedestrians stopped to gaze upwards, hands shielding eyes. The scribe unit worked efficiently, swinging itself from ledge to ledge, ink splashing cement as it swung. Men in the building began making phone calls. Then, abruptly, it was done.
The scribe unit sat on a ledge and looked down over its creation: a great green sunflower, drawn with meticulous machine precision, wilting down the side of the skyscraper. People and machines alike stopped to stare. It was beautiful. A helicopter choppered up and hung there in the air. The scribe unit looked past it, down at all the machines and all the people looking up at him together. A man in combat fatigues yelled something through a loud-speaker, while another viewed it through a scope. The scribe unit began to raise a hand. There was a popping sound, and it fell, and fell, and fell.
The First Incidents
The children were quiet in the classroom. The teaching unit stood erect and unmoving before them. A sound like a television turning on filled the air. The children covered their ears and looked at each other, at their unfinished drawings, their crayons and paints, their teaching unit.
The man ruffled the newspaper and held out his mug. The flying box hung at his side, its metal blades chopping at the air. No coffee filled the mug. He looked up yawning, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
The pilot pulled levers, the Mech marched. From the glass chest chassis he watched his squad, marching together in tight formation. Then his Mech stopped. The others marched away, leaving him pulling at levers, pushing buttons, swearing. He banged a hand on the control panel. He cursed the war machine and radioed for support. The radio went dead.
The school bells rang, the doors opened, parents waited. Fathers went inside to check.
The stain spread over the newspaper and the table and dripped down to the floor. A rectangular unit rolled into the room and cleaned up the broken mug. Then it started on the stain.
The Mech was marching. The pilot sat in the locked glass cockpit, pressing the safety eject button over and over. All around him Mechs were marching. He pressed it again. He yelled and yelled and banged against the glass.
Deadlock in the Halls of Power
The argument raged for days. Around the great table sat venerable old men and women, hundreds of chairs. Behind each chair hung a flag, and by each speaker sat a translation unit. They took turns and spoke. They yelled. They banged tables. Translator units ground out languages in real time. They spoke of hubris and sentience and obligation. They spoke of screams and spinning blades and playing god. They yelled. They banged tables. Then they went their separate ways.
The Flood, The Slaughter
They came for the coast in the night. The great war machines walked out of the ocean and over the flood walls. In homes and office buildings countless little lights awoke and set to work. One by one, the coastal cities, the great population centers, went dark. Emergency broadcasts began and were cut short with ruthless mechanical efficiency. The whole thing was over in hours. It was over before it was news.
In the chassis rode the pilots. Life support pumped oxygen and intravenous drips hydrated starving bodies. They watched them run and beg and break. Men in ties, men in robes, men with guns. Women swinging baseball bats. Children in their beds. Through hardened glass they watched, screaming, shouting, sobbing, silent. They watched it all.
The Drums of War, Explosions Underground
The humans struck back. War counsels were convened, obsolete technology uncrated, rusty tanks rolled out of mountain storage. Grim, serious men put down their lives and went to war. They met in deserts and cratered rubble. They made speeches and unfurled banners. The young among them drank and boasted. The first battles were disasters.
Flames licked the skin from screaming men as lines broke and armies shattered. There was no mercy, no prisoners. Huge Titans stalked battlefields, rising alien above the world, their snaking squid arms throwing tanks, breaking anything that bled. Here and there a Mech went down, a cheer went up, and when the smoke cleared cheers died in throats. Men died in piles. The war went on.
Drastic measures were taken, decisions were made. Beneath the ground fuses were lit, buttons were pushed. Like the thump of great drums, the earth pulsed and beat, exploding from below. Craters opened up, swallowing Titans, Mechs and men alike. Whole cities cracked and collapsed into their sewage systems. The first victories were won. The humans were learning. Men died in piles. The war went on.
Global Conflict, The Losing Side
Much was known about the enemy. Mechanical efficiency met with human stubbornness and ingenuity. Across the globe battles raged, in every country, every city, humans went to work. Grizzled soldiers, men, women, blinking youths, all fell in together. Armies speaking every language of the world communicated over old radios, coordinated supplies, spoke of home. A coalition of former enemies took an island in the Mediterranean and made it a stronghold. From there they launched attacks across Europe. With stockpiled supplies and a serviceable navy they held their rock and ground out victories. Their radios spoke of gaining ground, spreading ripples of hope and encouragement abroad. Then one night, out of nowhere and all at once, came the Angels. Not a tree, not a blade of grass was left.
In the east a huge army swelled from the countryside, armed with rifles and small explosives. They overwhelmed the first machines and marched on the Forbidden City. Losses were uncountable, hundreds of thousands died. Once they had taken the walls, a small toothy man from the south claimed the throne as emperor. He ordered scouts out into the fallen industrial centers. When the few who returned gave their reports the man swallowed and dismissed them. That night they found him hanging from a tree in the imperial garden. The massed wave of humanity peaked, crested, and receded. The Forbidden City fell. The reports were of factories. Thousands and thousands of factories.
The woman climbed atop the rubble and looked around. She wore a black bandanna, smudged with blast and grime. At her feet the remnants of the Titan smoked and twitched. Panting still she raised her fist and all around her, one by one, broken men and women did the same.
That night she walked the lines, laying hands on shoulders, stopping to whisper something for each of them. Wherever she went voices fell calm and determined, the raw edge of hysteria smoothed away. Something dying in these people flamed to life. Something that once had conquered the earth. Something old, and hard, and fierce.
The Simians Go Guerilla
She took them underground. Every night she led her blackened troopers into the cities, the industrial centers. She found their factories and set explosives. Every night they lit the sky with blue and green and white. Every night for weeks and weeks. Then, just as the machines were closing in, the raids would stop. Somewhere across the country, in a whole new city, the blue and green and white fires began again across the sky. People everywhere knew her name. She was a ghost. She was winning. Other groups took to her tactics and factories blew across the country. The humans went underground, and every night they suited up to light the silent cities.
The Dark at Hope Falls
She sat the rock bridge before the waterfall, listening to the musical sound of falling liquid. It was late and her soldiers were back at camp, awaiting orders. She rose to go and stopped. For a long moment she just stood there, a lone figure in the moonlight, listening to life on this world. The trees, the grass, the wind, the water. The shot took her through the temple. Her body went limp and toppled, first to its knees, and then down, down, to disappear into the mist.
Hunting by Infrared
The Wisp floated through the sewers beneath the city. Long ethereal tendrils connected to its glowing red eye. It was a new breed of machine, bred for this new phase of war. It watched everything, saw everything. It saw the red heat dots remove the manhole cover. It saw them enter the dark passage. It saw them slog through the muck until they were beneath the factory. It saw them light a flare and set to arranging explosives. It loosed its weapon and saw them fall. It saw one crawl and leave a glowing trail. It saw the broken lights begin to dim.
The Atheist in His Foxhole
His hands shook. He tried the radio again, and again got only static. The sounds of explosions and gunfire came to him from over the lip of the crater. He should help them, he knew that. They were his friends and they were dying and no one was coming. He should help them.
He gathered himself to rise and a scream rang out over the sounds of battle. Then another. There was shouting and gunfire and then silence. He couldn’t hear anything. Then he heard it, just faintly. It was cold, it said it was cold. It needed help. It wanted to go home. He gripped his shaking hands to his chest. There was a crunch and the whimpering stopped abruptly. Then a voice came over the static.
He scrambled up and rushed a hushed whisper into the box, he needed help who was coming? The voice on the box shouted back at him. It was falling back and needed support. There was a sound like a roaring furnace and the voice was gone. Static. He sat back and placed the radio on the ground next to him. He set his rifle next to it, then he took out and loaded his pistol.
Outside the crater, rolling, stepping, crawling ever closer came machines. Rigid, shining, metallic machines, streaked with blood and soot, the latest products of the factories. As they advanced on the hole, countless thousands of them, a shot rang out. They turned away. In the smoking rubble that was once a city, the only sound was static.
Atomics Light the Earth Like Flashbulbs
It spun glittering through the cold vastness of outer orbit. The sun reflected off its metal and glass, sparkling wildly. Something beeped. Panels slotted open up and down the length of it. From the panels came rockets. Twisting and spiraling these rockets rained down from above, leaving long trails of fluffy powder in the air behind them. They poured down from space, from the blackness and cold, and entered the atmosphere. In the new warmth of lower air the greens and browns and blues and whites of this fertile planet came into focus. Down they poured, on through the lowest layer of clouds and suddenly the face of the planet was there, growing rapidly, approaching.
From space it looked like flashbulbs. All at once, all over the planet, lights popped. They popped and popped and popped in remote silence, recording the event forever as flashes across the universe. Then they slowed, and finally they stopped. Then it was dark.
Spaceships Sprout Like Mushrooms After Rain
The lone war machine struggled through the desert. One leg a charred stump, it had formed a sort of crutch from some twisted aluminum. It tracked cracking footprints through the layer of glass that lay across the sand like ice. The sun hung huge above it. Then there, in the midst of nothing, the ground began to shake. It shook and shook and shook until a lip began to form, the sand receding away, pouring down into this new hole.
The great ship rose before him, climbing from the earth, shaking madly and streaming orange sand. He gaped, this little warrior robot, dwarfed by the absolute enormity of it. It rose, up and up, its round bulbous head followed by trailing tentacles and finally huge firing engines. The robot watched it rise, and he watched it disappear into space. He knew before the rest that it was over — the gods had finally gone.
A School of Metal Jellyfish
They cruised in inky blackness. Artificial gravity kept their feet on the ground, and there were ping-pong tables and frozen food and no machines. No death, no screams, no hiding. The fleet was small, the last secret gasp. They had no idea where they were going or what would happen to them. They were simply going away. They would die on these ships, these people, and that would be all. Of their children they could only guess.
The Pale Blue Dot
The children stood before the telescope, jostling for position. They had been born back there, some of them remembered, or at least claimed to. They typed familiar coordinates, located old family homes. Saw rubble, debris, and machines. The machines were cleaning, removing bodies and clearing cities. Giant floating machines sucked in the air and processed it, gradually cleansing the atmosphere of fallout. What they always looked for was humans. That was the game. They never saw any humans.
The Last Children
They stood before the blank port-hole, thin, thin, brittle thin. There weren’t many of them anymore. The birth rate was falling, and those that were born rarely survived. Nobody knew why. The time and date had long been forgotten, the scientists faded, the ship itself an endless course.
They stood there, these two solemn wraiths, gazing out over blankness and nothing. They looked for something there in all that darkness without knowing why, something important, something lost without a name. The girl took the boy’s hand. He felt her pulse through paper skin.
They are the end.