The Apex Consumer
Buddy and I were having a bonfire one night just outside of Pentwater. Back then, towns didn't really need names, but I always got a kick outta reading the old signs when I traveled.
Personally, I prefer to keep indoors. Doing so removes a whole class of awkward situations. But Buddy had different feelings on the matter. He must've had a bad case of claustrophobia when he was growing up. So we took to camping by the lake whenever we found a place with cover.
Buddy had scored a handle of whiskey earlier that day from a grocery. He found it hidden in the back, probably someone's long forgotten stash. And to make things better, just before sunset I found a deer laying down in the brush. It looked pretty sick otherwise I would've kept it a secret. I grabbed a rock and it was over before the poor thing knew what happened.
We sat there, roasting meat and passing the bottle back and forth. Darkness fell and if not for the fire I couldn't have seen my hand in front of my face. Embers popped and the meat hissed but we were otherwise enveloped in silence. Between the venison and whiskey that night it felt like we were royalty. In this world such experiences are always fleeting.
Buddy saw them first.
"Dammit, they're watching us," he complained. I groaned and replied, "Not this again, Buddy," but he ignored me. I stole my gaze from the fire and stared off into the darkness until my eyes adjusted. Slowly they appeared to me, like apparitions hiding from the light. All around us, several meters away, I could see their faces. Their cold, emotionless faces, silently staring at us as wavering firelight reflected on each metal visage.
Buddy jumped to his feet and marched toward the closest one. I'd seen him react this way before so I figured now was a good time to take a leak while he let off some steam. I got up, walked past a few robots, and found an upright trunk where I did my thing.
I don't mind them all that much. They just seem to wander around, never intentionally bothering anyone. Really quite boring if you think about it. The robots stared at me, like I'd come to expect, but why feel self-conscious when watched by mindless eyes?
Behind me the scuttle continued as Buddy beat the robot with a stick. Then I heard metal dragging on rocky dirt. I looked back and saw Buddy next to the fire just tearing into the thing. At the time I was certain that they didn't feel or think but it still felt pretty sad seeing the other robots just standing there watching.
All that whiskey really caught up with me and I was still busy behind the trunk. All at once the robots looked away from me and focused on Buddy.
A moment later, when I was just about done, I heard a sound I'll never forget. Buddy let out a scream, one that started shrill and ended with a gargle. I turned to look, half expecting to see the robots exacting revenge, when I saw a man with a knife standing over Buddy. I ducked back behind the trunk.
I peeked again and saw two men and a woman. They were pretty grungy and dressed in all black like a biker gang. Anytime Buddy and I heard bikes in the past we'd hold up for a couple days until whoever it was had left. Maybe it's getting harder for the gangs to sneak up on people with all that racket. Or maybe this one ran out of fuel. At any rate they must've been stalking us throughout the day before they came across our campsite.
From my hiding spot I saw that Buddy's throat was cut. I was pretty sure they didn't know I was with him but once they noticed supplies for two they'd come looking for me. I snuck out of there, awkwardly dodging dead trees in the dark, and headed towards town. Once I arrived I looked for the least interesting house I could find.
The house looked vacant since the original owners left. The front and back doors were bolted shut and the windows were boarded up. I located a crowbar in the shed and forced my way into the back door.
I couldn't sleep that whole first night. My heart was pounding like mad in fear of the gang finding me. Every so often I'd hear a noise outside but when I'd glance out a window it always resulted in a wandering robot. The last one I saw stopped and looked at me so I closed the blinds and gave up. With no one around the robots are fine but their eyes can point like an accusing finger.
I inspected a pantry whose shelves had given into rot long ago—the familiar smell of mildew reminded me that I was safely indoors. I sifted through spoiled food and went to town on some bottled water and sealed crackers. The water sobered me up and made the crackers palatable. There was some canned food in there too but a previous companion had a run in with botulism and I wasn't about to risk it.
I slept through most of the next day and left town the following night. I went North around midnight and walked until early morning. When I had someone with me it was safe to travel along the lakebed. That way, if we saw someone coming, we could creep inland and hide until they passed. But since I was solo I stuck to the highway. The forest remnants would provide much better cover if someone came along. The few robots along the way seemed to make the trip even lonelier.
Dawn was fast approaching when worry kicked in. I didn't want to risk hiding outside for a whole day. That's about when I saw a sign for Ludington. At that point I double-timed it and reached town just as the sun came up. I hurried past the first few rows of houses. If they were still hunting me I didn't want to be in the first place they looked. I settled for a secluded lake house a few blocks from the main drag. It had a boat sitting on the lakebed, about three kilometers from water.
The house was once surrounded by woods and the thicket of decaying trunks made it hard to notice from the road. Being near the lake also had its perks. The house had some fishing equipment and at least one spool of usable fishing line. I figured I'd settle down there for a while. I found some more food in the pantry and had a feast.
Behind the house was a small greenhouse. The walls were blown out—probably from the three year storm—but the roof still held. The garden was long-overgrown and strangled by weeds but still had some vegetables growing in it. Normally I would have eaten them without a second thought but I was still full from lunch. Nobody was around so I did the unthinkable: I left the food untouched.
After exploring the house I figured it was time to resupply. The nearby houses would be convenient but also posed a risk. If another gang came by it would hint to my whereabouts. I ignored their temptations and went further into town.
Along the way one of the robots followed me. Unlike the usual pristine robot face this one was damaged and the right half was missing. Someone probably pulled a Buddy. I'd been followed before but this time I was unnerved—this one looked like it had seen some shit. A minute later I reached the local department store. The shattered glass door suggested at least one raiding. After I stepped through the door I relaxed—the robot declined to follow me inside.
I found new clothes to replace the tattered stuff I had. I found more bottled water and stale pasta and some other food that had survived. On my way out something caught my eye.
On a rack near the exit was an assortment of magazines. The covers depicted various activities practiced long ago. Some were unfamiliar and confusing like a person washing a hairy beast. Others had images familiar to me like the one that grabbed my attention: it was another person and an archaic robot next to a greenhouse. Such pictures usually don't distract me but this one looked just like my greenhouse. I hate carrying supplies—you never know when you'll need to run—and I almost left it. But I was feeling lucky that day and snagged it on my way out.
My robot stalker was nowhere in sight.
Back at the house I couldn't wait to go down to the lake and fish. The thought of fresh meat conjured up the deer from a few nights ago. It was such a rare moment and yet those barbarians cut the experience short. I thought again about Buddy. Many of the gangs are cannibalistic, but at least there was enough deer to feed three. I tried not to ponder Buddy's fate. Maybe I'd head back one day and give him a proper burial.
It was still afternoon and I couldn't fish until nightfall. The long walk across exposed lakebed is something I wouldn't risk during the day even with someone like Buddy around. Instead I laid out the magazine on the counter top and sat down.
It appeared to be full of instructions on gardening. Most of the words I couldn't read but the pictures made sense. As I sat there, flipping through pages, my excitement grew. I learned something new every few page turns. Water makes plants grow. Different vegetables need different amounts of sunlight. New plants can be made from old plants.
I found a shovel and spent the whole afternoon in the garden, cleaning it up to resemble the ones in the magazine. I even used some bottled water on the plants. Later that night, when I went fishing, I could come back with a bucket of lake water—and there was plenty of bottles back at the store.
The robots usually stuck to areas with lots of buildings and this forsaken house didn't seem to entice any of them. Yet, while I dug around the garden that afternoon, I couldn't help but feel like I was being watched.
That night I cobbled together a fishing pole. The reels were junk but all I needed was a line, a hook, and a pole. I went down to the lake in the darkness, passing beached shipwrecks, and was accompanied by the sound of fish bones softly crunching underfoot.
I found myself fishing nearly an hour later, using some rotten food for bait. I sat on the bucket I brought with me and relaxed. After exploring many houses and finding many photos I've realized that fishing has always been a luxury. That and fish used to be much bigger.
I caught two fish that night. When I made an attempt for a third something caught my eye. A few kilometers North a giant bonfire erupted on the lakebed. It looked like someone set fire to a beached ship. Only an accomplished gang or a rogue madman would risk a fire visible from so far away. Either way it would only attract danger. I scooped up enough water to keep my garden happy for a day and hurried back to the house.
A couple days later I made another supply run. There were more robots in town that day, maybe five times as many as the last time I went out. In some places they crowded so heavily it was hard to walk by. They seemed different; instead of staring at me the whole time they only looked for a moment. I humored myself: maybe they thought I was a friendly neighbor.
I took a different route for my return, hoping to avoid the robotic throng, when I thought I heard talking. I ducked behind a rusty car and held my breath. If somebody had somebody else to talk to then it meant I was outnumbered.
I listened for another minute before realizing it wasn't a person. Anytime I heard robots talk it always sounded like gibberish, but this one was asking for help. I crept over to the next house and discovered the source: A car was parked in a garage, with broken windows and pealed paint. Beneath the car, next to an overturned jack, protruded the legs of a robot.
I stopped myself from laughing and considered walking away. What difference would it be for a robot to either wander aimlessly or be stuck under a car? But I thought back to the robot Buddy had decimated and figured I owed them a favor. I set down my supplies, re-situated the jack, and cranked up the car so the robot could crawl out.
I never thought I'd say it but the robot looked familiar. It was missing half a face.
With all the noise the robot had been making I figured it was best to get out of there, just in case someone else had heard. I grabbed my supplies and hurried off toward home. From behind me I could have sworn I heard the words "Thanks, gardener."
After a week my greenhouse was thriving. It was an overgrown mess when I first found it. But now the vegetable plants had new leaves and some of them were bearing fruit. I couldn't believe my eyes: the magazines—which I spent my life thinking were irrelevant—were exceedingly helpful.
After that I grew adventurous, developing a thirst for knowledge and a desire to expand my garden. It was plausible that a big enough garden could provide me all the food I would ever need. I would no longer need to roam the countryside looking for deer. I could risk fewer trips to the store and those perilous walks to the lake.
The next day I returned to town to get equipment to expand my operations. If I could pull this off it might even be my last trip to town. From another magazine I discovered how easy it was to build wooden structures using the tools others had left behind. With a supply of woodworking tools and materials I headed back from town. I would soon discover that unchecked excitement breeds carelessness.
On my way back I passed another group of robots. They all stared at a single house near the store, one I had passed several times before. As I passed I heard the sound of someone talking. I hoped it was another robot but the sound of a man and woman arguing soon became clear. In my panic I dropped the supplies and ran. From behind me I heard him shout, "Hey, someone's outside!"
The only destination I could imagine was home. Instead of running straight to it I opted to zig-zag through the city. The robots stood around, ignoring me as I passed, but for whatever reason they seemed to have shared knowledge of where the others were. As I ran by they looked past me, through the buildings, at my pursuers.
I tried to use this to my advantage. When I reached the next intersection a nearby robot looked left. I turned right. I did this a few more times then ducked behind a house near the edge of town. Then I waited.
Another robot aimlessly wandered nearby and didn't look at anything in particular. My heart approached a sustainable rate once I realized I gave them the slip. I waited another half hour before departing, taking the road out of town and finally walking down the overgrown driveway.
I reached for the front door when I realized something was amiss. The wood was cracked as if the door had been kicked in. I snuck around to the back. My garden was ruined. The soil was torn up and not a single plant remained. All of my hard work was gone. Whoever ate the unripe vegetables wouldn't have enjoyed a single bite.
The back door swung open and someone stepped out. It was the man who killed Buddy. I must have took him by surprise since this time he only had a two by four. I turned to run when he swung it and struck the back of my head. I tumbled to the ground as everything faded to black.
The last thing I heard was him shouting, "Guess who came back!"
I must have been out for several hours. The smallest sliver of moon faintly lit the dark yard. There I sat with my hands tied together behind my back. I looked around but couldn't see my captors. I was tied to a pole that I had erected next to the garden. It was to be part of my greenhouse expansion project which I now suspected might never be finished.
If they were inside the house sleeping then I still had a chance. The pole climbed into the air about two and a half meters. I couldn't possibly get my knotted wrists that high. Luckily the pole was only buried half a meter. I figured I could dig my way down until the pole was loose enough to knock over.
I started to dig and quickly realized this dirt was different than that of the garden. Rocks chewed up my fingers with each dirty handful. After a few minutes my fingers ached and were certainly bleeding.
The pole started to give after several painful minutes. I paused for a moment to listen for the gang. They still weren't in sight though a few robots had trickled into the yard. They must have heard the gang leader shouting earlier in the day and had come by to stare at us silly humans.
From within the house I heard snoring. I was elated. They had underestimated my survival skills and had failed to guard me. Once I was free I could run away and never look back. I wrestled with the pole, jerking it back and forth, until it gained enough momentum to dislodge.
It crashed into a boarded window on the backside of the house, shattering the glass within.
I rose to my feet, cursing my mistake, when I heard one of them yell from inside. "Our food's gettin' away! Get up you idiot!"
I took off in a sprint but it was too dark to see the shovel in my way. I crashed into the ground, scraping up my face and arm. The door burst open and I heard one of them approaching. "Haha, gotcha!"
I tried to kick him off but he had more practice dragging people around than I had with being dragged. He threw me down in front of the back door as the other two emerged, the leader brandishing a knife.
More and more robots showed up, walking in from around the sides of the house. The gang noticed them and smirked. They were probably looking forward to using the robots as target practice after they finished me off.
"Where do ya think your goin'? It's not even time to eat yet!" the leader said, looking down at me. I was exhausted and my body protested as I rose to me knees. I looked up at him and figured I should try to talk them out of killing me.
"You're still hungry? You already ate all my vegetables!"
One gang member turned to the other and asked, "The hell's a vegetable?"
She replied, "It's a chunky plant."
The leader laughed. "Plants! We don't eat no plants."
I couldn't believe it. All my work had been destroyed by irreverent vandals too foolish to even consider eating it.
I tried to reason with them. "I was growing food! I learned how by looking through old magazines. With enough time I could make us all the food we need! A never ending supply of it! Just let me go and I can show you how."
But the big man with a knife wasn't having it. He kicked me in the stomach and I returned to the ground. His lackey spoke up, "Well, we want breakfast to be fresh, and ain't nobody ever got far with slashed tendons."
The shovel wasn't far away. I crawled toward it, hoping I might maim one of them. Just as I reached for it another foot tore into my ribs and I rolled onto my back in pain.
The leader crouched in front of me. He grabbed my foot, wrestled my shoe off, and brought the knife near. I tried to kick him off but he was too strong.
I screamed, much as Buddy had screamed, and closed my eyes. As I anticipated the cold steel of the knife slicing through my heal his hands were torn away. All three of them began shouting.
I opened my eyes. The robot onslaught effortlessly laid waste to my unsuspecting captors. Flesh was torn and limbs were removed. The leader tried to yell something but his larynx was quickly pulverized. I recalled how casually Buddy had been able to mutilate robots and shuddered. He would never know how powerful these machines were, that they had been capable of fighting back.
After the gang was defeated the robots left one by one. Each one dragged away some of the mess they had made. It was as if they wanted to spare my yard from the gore.
Several robots remained. One of them stepped forward and extended a hand. I took it and rose to my feet. It was dark but once I was vertical I noticed half of its face was destroyed.
There was only one thing I could say, "Thank you, robot."
The robot spoke to me in return, "It is not yet over."
The other robots approached and held out their arms. I recoiled at first until I noticed they were holding something. Each of them cupped a plant from my garden, with roots safely encased in a layer of dirt, their leaves unharmed as if removed by an expert.
I accepted the plants and replanted them in the garden. I did my best—considering how dark it was—and vowed to fix them at day break. I returned to my feet and looked over the garden. There was still a lot of work to be done but at least this crop would survive.
I expected the robots to wander off but they continued to regard me. The half-faced robot broke the silence, "We are at your command, gardener."
Maybe they read the gardening magazines as well and wanted to help. I asked for clarification. "You seven will help me with my garden? You'll help me grow enough food to survive?"
The robot stared at me intently and spoke, "Close."
I was about to question what it meant before I noticed that the other robots had returned. Past them something shimmered toward the lake. It almost looked like the water levels had returned but that was impossible. I squinted and approached the lakebed to get a better view. Thousands of robots stood on the dry sand, their faces reflecting subtle moonlight.
I stood there unable to speak, having never seen so many robots at once, when the half-faced robot came and stood next to me.
"All robots will help grow food for all of mankind."