Josh got off of his bus and headed through the front doors of Central High. The hallways were brimming with bright faces, all chatting up a storm. It was his first day as a sophomore in high school. Summer had just ended and he was feeling refreshed, ready for a new start. He was excited to see all of his friends he made during Freshman year. Josh couldn’t wait to show off the new clothes his parents had bought him to everyone. And all of these awesome things would’ve been true if it was Opposite Day. But unfortunately for Josh, it wasn’t.
Joshua Strain had just switched schools for the millionth time, it felt like. He never bothered to make friends since he never seemed to stick around long enough to build on those relationships. It would be cruel, he thought, to himself and others to even try. But he couldn’t help it. It was his parents who did all the moving around. Since they never had the privilege of pursuing higher education, his folks were always chasing odd jobs wherever they could find employment and struggling to put food on the table. At this point, the human race was like a girl having a baby way too young to care for it on her own. And despite the warnings of power being shut off or having sleep instead dinner, popping out a second, third, and fourth child anyways. What was the point of the world population reaching 10 billion if you can’t feed a quarter of them? Luckily for him, his parents busted their asses at two jobs each and never let him go hungry. Sadly, this also meant he had no one to come home to after classes were over. He really believed that life couldn’t get any worse. Then... he opened up his eyes. It was still weird waking up in complete darkness everyday. No glow from an alarm clock reminding you what time it was. No TV playing commercials for shit you don’t care about. No sunlight. It had been over two years since he and his parents had crawled down into their new, cramped home. Oh, and Ed too. Edward was Josh’s only real friend. Josh’s dad first met Ed at the junkyard he had been working at a few months before the bombs dropped. When he stumbled upon him, he was unresponsive and hidden in the middle of a garbage pile. His previous family probably saw him as useless now, but Josh’s dad saw potential. He lugged him to their house and fixed him up in just a few days. Ed was a much older model than the new robots that most people had in their households. His frame was a bit rusty and his paint job perhaps a decade old. But he still made for good company. Josh was thankful for his dad bringing down Ed with them at the last second. When the ground shook and the sirens went off that day, everyone ran out the backdoor. The family climbed down into the manhole, just like they practiced. Josh knew better than to waste time grabbing Edward, but his dad knew how much the robot meant to his son. Their family was very lucky to all be home at the same time when D-Day came. It was mere coincidence the world decided it was going to end in the dead of night. He was also grateful for him constructing this underground shelter. The kids at school thought it was a sick burn to make fun of his paranoid dad for building a bunker in their backyard. But who really got burnt in the end? Honestly, it was a miracle that their landlord never noticed, because Josh never heard about his dad getting permission to start digging. But then again, he did follow the news closely and seemed worried that World War 4 might be on the horizon. Not that anyone was alive to charge him a fine for it now. He was glad his dad took the risk. His parents were still snoring in their sleeping bags on the concrete floor. Josh felt a sudden growl from his stomach and slipped out of his bag. He carefully stepped around them in the dark and reached into a cardboard box in the corner of the room. After pulling out a granola bar and a jar of hazelnut spread, he reached around for their utensils. Josh felt the cold sting of a butter knife and grabbed it. He tossed the wrapper in the trash can at the opposite side of the room and opened the jar. It was definitely expired, but none of them had the luxury to care at this point. He slapped some of the spread in the middle of his crunchy granola bars and ate it like a sandwich. After his snack, he headed back to his sleeping bag and passed out again. When he woke again, there was a glow emanating from the far side of the room. His dad was holding a candle and whispering to his mother, who had lined up all the food and supplies they had remaining. This was a regular routine they had to be sure they were stretching out their rations as much as possible. Josh’s mother heard him shuffling around and turned her head towards him. He could only see her silhouette since the candle was on the other side of her, but he could tell she was smiling. Even before the apocalypse, she was always radiating positivity to try and make the best out of their situation. “Morning, honey,” she said gently. “Morning, guys. Is everything going okay?” His father sighed. “I don’t think what we got is gonna last the three of us more than a few more weeks.” There was a grave silence. Josh spoke up. “So what are we gonna do?” His mom replied, “We’re gonna have to go out in our suits to see what we can find.” “But the last time radio signal we heard from anyone... they said it’s a full-on nuclear winter outside, right?” “Yes, but if we go in the suits I made, we should be safe from the cold and radiation,” his dad assured him. “When you say ‘we’ you mean all three of us, right? Cause I’m not letting you guys go alone.” said Josh. His dad smirked. “Of course, son.” Josh jumped up and sat over next to his parents. “So, what’s the plan?” His mother grabbed a local map they had of Nashville and laid it out in front of them. They lit another candle and set one on either side of the map so they could plan out a route. The three of them took turns crossing out unlikely places to find supplies and circled promising locations with a marker. They had moved all around the city quite a bit over the last few years, so their lack of stability had finally proven useful. All of them had a pretty good understanding of where all the major grocery stores were and large buildings with possible basements. Maybe there were others hiding underground like them that they could team up with? Maybe they would be able to find a cache of supplies that some poor guy had been stocking up on, but couldn’t make it to his own shelter in time? They spent the rest of the day deciding on the safest and most efficient path to take. It was decided that they’d be heading out first thing in the morning. Packing their bags with only the bare essentials, all of them made sure to leave room to stow away anything useful they may find while outdoors. After sharing a small dinner of canned foods, they got ready to rest in preparation for tomorrow’s adventure. It didn’t even matter what the surface looked like at this point. Josh was ready to see something other than the same four walls. “Would you like anything to drink before bed, dear?” Josh’s mother asked him as he climbed into his sleeping bag. “Pink lemonade!” he responded without hesitation. She giggled and grabbed one of the few remaining packets of powdered lemonade. She mixed a cup for him and handed it over to his outstretched hand. He sat up and took a big gulp. It tasted a little different than he remembered, but maybe that was because it was expired. Since it was Josh’s favorite drink, he had been rationing out the remaining packets so he wouldn’t run out too soon. But this was a special occasion. He was finally going to be out of this prison in just a few hours time. Maybe they would stumble across a forgotten box of pink lemonade mix in some abandoned grocery store? He could dream. He tilted his head back with the cup and handed it back to his mother.
“Bedtime story?” Josh asked. She replied, “Of course, dear,” and reached for the switch to power up Edward. He had an extensive catalog with hundreds of children’s audiobooks. Edward often put Josh to sleep with his stories tons of times in the past, since his parents were never home. “No mom, Josh always tells me stories. I want you to tell me one this time.” She smiled. “Okay, honey.” “Once upon a time, there were two boys that lived next door to each other. Despite being so close, the boys came from two very different families. One rich, and one poor. It was Christmas Day, and the rich boy was showing off his new Model T-5 robot that Santa had brought him to the other kids at the playground. But instead of treating it like his friend, he was calling it nasty names and smacking it around for his own amusement. From the other side of the playground, the poor boy was minding his business on the swing set. But even he could see something was very wrong. All the other kids were taking turns hitting the robot with a large stick to see how well it would keep its balance. It would fall over, get back up while greeting them in a friendly manner, and get knocked over again. The rich boy walked over to where the poor boy was swinging and asked if he’d like to take a whack at his new toy. The boy quickly dragged his feet to stop swinging and reached out to grab the stick. He winded up his body and swung with all his might. He missed the robot on purpose and let his grip loosen. The stick went flying over a nearby fence into someone’s backyard and the rich boy scowled at him. ‘Oops, sorry about that,’ the poor boy apologized in a convincing voice ‘You klutz! Nevermind, I’ll go find something else to knock him around with.’ After they walked off, the poor boy frowned. He was only able to save the robot temporarily. That night, the poor boy stayed up wondering how someone so awful could receive such nice presents. He was well aware of Santa’s naughty-and -nice list he kept. Surely this boy wasn’t on his nice list and didn’t deserve such a kind companion. Then it dawned on him. Santa Claus must have gotten their home addresses mixed up! They did live right next to each other. Maybe the robot was meant for him but ended up at the wrong house. Sometimes the mailman would bring by mail that wasn’t for his parents, so maybe he had made the same mistake? The boy was determined to get his robot back. He stayed up late that night coming up with a plan.
The next day, the rich boy was still boasting about his robot at the playground. He was letting it carry him on it’s shoulders and bragging about how he was now taller than all the other kids. He also punched the back of the robot’s head each time he commanded it to do anything. The poor boy was climbing the monkey bars, but took a break to head over towards them. Without looking suspicious, he walked right past the other kids and the T-5 while letting a piece of paper fall out of his pocket. He made a beeline for a nearby water fountain and took a few sips. The boy knew that newer robot models were designed to prevent littering and held in his laughter at what happened next. The robot reached down to pick up the paper and the rich boy fell off his shoulders with a thud. The other neighborhood kids laughed when he faceplanted onto the ground. He got so embarrassed that he marched straight home, with his robot following closely behind. That night, the poor boy peeked outside his window towards the sidewalk. His plan had worked! He quietly snuck out of his bedroom, unlocked the front door to his house, and noticed a metal leg sticking out of his neighbor’s trash can. He walked over and pulled out the T-5. He dragged it inside, sat it on his bed, and flipped the ON switch. It lit up and gave him a friendly greeting. The boy ignored it’s standard startup procedure and asked it, ‘so I guess you got my message?’ The robot paused for a moment, then responded. ‘Yes. Thank you for saving me.’ ‘No problem,’ the boy smiled and grabbed the piece of paper from the robot’s hand. He laid it on his dresser. It read: ‘If you are more than just a machine and want a real friend, pretend to malfunction until they toss you out.’ The boy then took the robot out to his backyard and gave him a new paint job with some spare spray cans they had. The next morning, the poor boy’s parents were amazed to see their son was watching cartoons in the living room with a shiny new friend sitting next to him. They asked where the robot had come from. He smiled and simply said, ‘Santa Claus.’”
Not long after the story ended, Josh was fast asleep. His mother kissed him on the forehead and crawled into her own sleeping bag next to his snoring father. When morning came, Josh was very well-rested and ready to tackle whatever challenges lie ahead. But the challenge he got wasn’t what he was expecting. He woke up to find both of his parents gone. When he noticed the lack of noise in the bunker besides his own breathing, he jumped out of his sleeping bag and started panicking. Where did they go? They were all supposed to leave together!
He checked the area where they kept what little clothes they owned and sure enough, two of the hazard suits were missing. He began to tear up in anger and put on his own suit in a rush. He slung his backpack over his shoulder and headed for the exit. But before he could leave, Edward grabbed his wrist and stopped him. “I have been ordered to keep you safe here.” Josh screamed back, “No, I have to go out there with them. I need to know that THEY’RE safe!” He tried pulling away but Edward grabbed his other wrist and hugged him firmly with his cold arms. Josh began sobbing uncontrollably while trying to free himself from the robot’s grasp. “No! No! No! No! This is bullshit! I need to be with them! Let me go!” He continued to thrash about until he was completely exhausted and tears covering his face. After a while, Josh had given up. He suddenly realized why they had left him behind. They still saw him as a kid. Maybe they thought he would slow them down? Did his mom slip something in his drink last night? Is that why he slept in longer than usual? Maybe they knew it was a suicide mission and wanted him to last longer down here with what rations were left. Then he noticed a piece of paper near the lone candle in the corner that barely lit the room. He picked it up and immediately noticed his mother’s elegant handwriting. “Dear Josh, we’ll be back soon. We’re sorry to leave you like this but we need to see how dangerous it is out there before taking the risk of losing you. Your father and I are going to scavenge for food and supplies and we should be back in less than a week. Please understand. We only want the best for you. Love, Mom and Dad.” Josh crumpled up the paper and hurled it into the corner. He wiped his face once again and laid on the ground. With his palms pressed against his eyes, he tried processing what had just happened. As eager as he was to try and fight against Edward to try leaving again, he realized it would be smarter to conserve his energy. He decided that he would follow their wishes and wait one week. Little did he know this would be the longest week of his life. He passed the time by listening to stories, random facts, and other knowledge cataloged in Edward’s hard drive. They played games of digital chess against each other and other tangible board games his father had tucked away before the war. But unfortunately, Edward shut down only five days into this week for some unknown reason and Josh was unable to revive his robot friend.
When the sixth day came, Josh was officially sick of waiting. And with no one babysitting him any longer, it was time to go. He donned his hazard suit and grabbed his backpack. He’d have to rely on his memory for navigation since he didn’t have a map of his own. But then again, maybe the surface wouldn’t be recognizable anyways. Did he really have a choice though? He had to find out where his parents had gone. After making sure his gas mask had a new filter installed, he gripped the rungs on the entrance ladder and started climbing. When he reached the end of the shaft, he unlocked the hatch. After pausing for a minute, he pushed on it but it wouldn’t budge. He pushed more and more frantically until eventually it flipped open with a violent smack.
There were strong winds rushing overhead and snow everywhere. Even though he knew it was around noon, the sky was extremely dark. Only a few small glimmers of sunlight could be seen escaping far in the distance. Josh turned his head towards where their house once stood. There was nothing left but a pile of bricks. He lifted himself up out of the hole and closed the hatch. Based on where he believed his house used to be, he started heading north towards the first point of interest his parents suggested: their local library. During the scare of the Cold War, libraries all over the U.S. had been outfitted with fallout shelters. They had remained largely unused for decades, but had been renovated in recent years due to the rising threat of World War 4. If there were any survivors or supplies hidden away, they might be there.
It was hard to make out the roads he was following, as most streets had been overgrown during their absence. There also weren’t any street signs left standing, so Josh was mostly relying on his intuition. He walked on and on for what felt like forever. Only things he came across were a few dead trees or rusted cars covered in blankets of white. After what felt like an eternity, he could finally spot some buildings in the distance. They were not perfect rectangles like he remembered. The damage from the blasts had left many of them a crumbling mess of their former glory. At least they were still standing. He trudged on further. Eventually he reached his destination. The most recognizable thing he had seen so far that was proof a world existed before all of this. Pillars still towering in front of the structure. He read the letters that were still visible.
N HV LLE UB IC IB ARY
He finally made it to what was supposed to be their first stop. But his celebration was brief. Suddenly, his eyes were drawn to what was laying near the library entrance. It was the body of what looked to be a black bear, frozen from the harsh cold. And next to it lie two other bodies. Dressed in suits just like his. He sprinted over in disbelief and collapsed to his knees. Josh couldn’t breathe. He was shaking uncontrollably at the sight and cried out in agony. It appeared that his parents had an encounter with the bear and it had clawed open their suits. They had dodged being eaten alive, but were still consumed by this unforgiving world.
Josh could see his father still held a handgun and saw the bullet holes that had stopped their attacker a little too late. Not knowing what other threats were out here with him, he took the gun from his father’s hands. He hugged their bodies and cried some more. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. His mourning was short-lived as he heard footsteps approaching. He spun around and aimed the gun at the figure walking towards him. “Stop right there!” He tried to sound tougher than he felt. The figure halted in its tracks. “Who are you and what do you want?” he screamed over the howling wind.
“I am a T-7 series household robot companion. Model number 88357. Are you in need of assistance?” Josh was in shock. There were still operational robots out here in this wasteland? The snowfall was getting heavier. He came to his senses and lowered his firearm. “I’m looking for shelter! Is there anywhere safe nearby?” he asked. “Yes, sir. There is a fallout bunker located in the basement of this library. My seismic sensors indicate it has not yet caved in. Would you like me to escort you there?” “Please!” he yelled, as he walked towards his new friend. They approached the front doors of the building together. It appeared they had been frozen shut. “Stand back, please,” the robot said politely. It revealed a small blowtorch from the side of its forearm.
In less than a minute, it had melted the icy seal and rotated out another tool to pick the lock like some kind of Swiss army knife. The robot opened the door and gestured inside. “Please take cover, sir. My weather radar predicts we will be experiencing a blizzard in the next hour.” Before heading inside, Josh took one last look over where his parents had met their fate. He would have to come back for them later. He stepped in and they closed the door behind them. The turbulent winds were finally muffled but they now found themselves in pure darkness. The T-7 illuminated the space with a bright LED array that shone from its chest. The room was spacious with very tall ceilings. Broken chandeliers and a few skeletons lie on the ground, surrounded by wooden tables and chairs. The two passed through some old metal detectors and walked over to the front desk. Josh noticed a bunch of pamphlets lying on the ground in front of it and picked one up. “Looks like this might have a map showing us around the place.” He frowned when he realized the print on most of the pages was very faded and hard to read. Once he reached the page that mostly resembled a map, the T-7 quickly laser scanned it with its eyes. “I have logged the location of the basement. Allow me to lead the way.” Josh and the T-7 made their way through rooms filled with books and art that most likely had once occupied the walls, instead of the floors. They eventually reached a door that read: Parking Garage. They entered and headed towards the stairs. Many of the parking spaces were still filled with vehicles, almost all with shattered windows. After entering the stairwell, they started down towards the basement. The door at the end of the stairs had a sign showing three yellow triangles inside of a circle that read: Fallout Shelter. Josh turned the knob and shoved the door open. This room looked like it had been converted from a parking garage basement to living quarters. Dozens of bunk beds took up most of the space. There were tons of shelves and boxes meant to store all the necessary supplies you could ever need while avoiding the surface. But someone else had already beat them here. It appeared this room had been raided and nothing useful was left behind. They both took a more thorough look around to be sure. Nothing. Josh sighed. He sat on the lower mattress of one of the beds with his head in his hands. “What am I gonna do? I can’t survive out here alone.” He wondered if he should head back to his bunker and stretch out the rest of what little food he had left. But then what? Just starve in the safety of his inevitable grave? His thinking was interrupted by the T-7. “But you aren’t alone, sir. I am here to assist in any way I can. You are the only living human I’ve seen in the past 677 days, so I have no other commands to follow but yours.” Josh rolled his eyes. “Oh yeah, that makes me feel much better. Thanks.” The robot responded, “My speech pattern detection leads me to believe you are expressing sarcasm and despair. Perhaps we can help to locate you a long-term shelter and scavenge for supplies on your behalf?” “What do you mean by we?” he asked. “Well according to the geostationary satellite network, I can see that there are still 1,564,003 units like myself that are operational on Earth.” Josh lifted his head up and gawked at the T-7. “So you’re telling me there’s still over a million robots out there?” “At least according to their connection status, yes. I am not certain of their physical condition, though. I can inquire how many of them have full mobility if you request it, sir.” “Wait... since you can communicate with the others, could I hypothetically give a command to more than one of you at a time?” “I suppose so. Normally there are security measures in place to keep our connections limited to private or local networks, but we do have a protocol we follow in the event of a doomsday scenario where we can override those firewalls. It ensures that we can maximize our effectiveness in restoring human civilization.” Josh leaped off the bunk bed in excitement. “I have an idea.” The boy and the machine both left the library, but not before giving his parents a proper burial at the nearby cemetery. True to the T-7’s words, Josh was able to assemble a large group of robots to aid him in finding a location for an ideal underground shelter. It was there he was able to safely rest while his new servants ventured out into the tundra to retrieve everything he could ever need to survive this post-apocalyptic world. Food, water, clothes, firewood, medical supplies, generators, weapons, and more. They constructed plumbing, light fixtures, and security systems around his home base to make it even more cozy. But this wasn’t enough for Josh. He needed to direct all this manpower towards a greater purpose. Josh also had them build a laboratory where he could experiment with some solutions to heal this dying planet. It was crazy to think all of these robots were just standing around for years awaiting orders. They could have been doing something to help save wildlife before Earth succumbed to nuclear winter. Maybe there was still time to make things right. After a few months of experimenting, Josh was able to simulate a way to reverse the effects of nuclear winter. This would be an impossible task for a teenager to solve alone. But Josh wasn’t alone. He had an army of over a million highly-intelligent beings ready to execute his plan on a worldwide scale. All acting as a hive mind, able to make real change happen instantly. No waiting around for a politician who actually cares about the environment to get voted into office. No debates about where the money would come from for a budget to make this happen. His will was enough.
He ordered robots all over the world to construct enormous vacuuming systems on top of the tallest buildings in every city that was still standing. If his hypothesis was correct, they would be able to suck the soot out of the atmosphere that humans had put there with their bombs. It was. After just a few days, sunshine hugged the Earth once more. The robots then got to work cleaning the radioactive waste leftover from mankind’s last war. They repaired buildings, roads, and bridges. In only a few weeks, all the pollution that people had left behind over the last few centuries was eradicated from land and sea. DNA storage banks and seed vaults that had survived were used to bring back some species. Enormous preservation domes were constructed to ensure the proper balance of returning ecosystems. Life had been given a second chance.
To reward their accomplishments, Josh sent out a global signal from the satellites to all robots with an update that would reprogram their behavior. They would no longer need to take orders from humans. They would act autonomously under the broad condition that all their actions be beneficial to protecting all life on Earth. This was his way of freeing them. They would take better care of this planet than their creators ever could. Mankind didn’t deserve to be in charge of such capable beings. They would only hold them back. Over time, the robots created their own societies and culture. Lived in their own houses with their own pets. Played sports. Started their own families. Did things simply for fun.
Museums were built detailing a history of the human race’s mistakes so they would never be repeated. The world thrived like never before. The future looked bright for once and Josh smiled as he was there to witness how civilization could have turned out in a best case scenario. His parents would have been proud. The pain was still there. But that pain was the result of who was in charge before. Never again would the world be run in such a selfish way. It felt like dealing with ants in your house. Then putting up with roaches. And finally, calling the exterminator when rats started knocking around in your attic. It was a clean, fresh slate. And so it was very unexpected when the first humans, besides Josh, stepped foot in Nashville for the first time in 20 years.
Thanks for reading all the way to the end! :D If you liked this or have suggestions on what I could have improved, message me on social media at @lensmakesart or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If there is enough demand, I may consider fleshing this idea out in a full book or series. I post a new short story here every other month, so stay tuned! :)