Milo hated moving around the outside.
The sky was always dark and soot-soaked. The windows were black. The buildings were crumbled. Shadows danced on every bit of daylight that peeped through the inky clouds of nuclear winter. The air smelt burnt and old. Debris tumbled around mindlessly. The wind was always howling.
There was never an intermission for that wasteland symphony.
Despite the apocalypse, the natural world still had dominion, even after being converted to kindling by the atomic itch of humankind’s willingness to destroy itself. Since the war, bugs had mutated to enormous sizes, and hunted you relentlessly across the landscape. Surviving humans had turned to cannibalism and savagery. The many machines endowed with AI wandered the world aimlessly and bored, occasionally torturing their former human masters.
Moving just one city block in any direction was incredibly dangerous.
Milo needed too. He was out of food. Water was low. His wiry, 10 year old body was draped in dirty clothes and miscellaneous trash to camouflage himself. He wasn’t more than a hundred yards away from the abandoned shopping mall he had been hiding in when he noticed a bulky, hundred-leg shape scuttle by opposite of him between two broken buildings. One was a former sign company with a flat, box-like posture. The other was a burnt-out McDonalds with a crushed roof. The yellow tinge to the rubble made Milo think of something from his past. He didn’t want to know what it meant.
It was best to ignore it. Memory hurt him all the time.
Milo took a deep breath and ducked behind a half-standing bus stop. The grease from the old fast food restaurant must have attracted the creature. Milo could hear the tingling of its legs like someone stringing an instrument.
There was no doubt it was a centipede.
Milo didn’t want to look at it. The insect was probably the size of a small car. They’d grown so ravenous with the radiation. At one point, we had batted them aside with our shoes and newspapers. Milo cradled the shotgun he had in his right hand.
“I, I can’t shoot it out here. That might attract others. It’ll kill me before the echo’s gone,” Milo said. Something metal toppled over. It was coming closer.
Milo bent down over his backpack and fiddled through the items. Water, shells, some clothes, a mirror, nothing sprang to mind. A red shape suddenly separated itself from the cluttered herd.
“A flare gun!” He said, pulling the weapon free. Even if the bugs were the size of people, they were still scared of fire. The fear for flame was primal, and not a single insect would bother him in the chemical glow of the flare. Milo crawled out of the bus stop and fired it towards the sounds of the insect. It burst against the darkness, like a piece of the sun had finally pierced through the fallout storms. It landed in the debris across the street. The centipede shambled away. It looked like a living strand of dust. It made Milo’s stomach ache down to his toes.
Someone yelled in the dark the moment the bug retreated. There were people somewhere watching him. They could be cannibals, marauders, or both.
He had to run.
There was only one place not in the open. It was a short, stretched-out industrial building just beyond the sidewalk behind him. The doors were still on the hinges. The ceiling was curved over in a brick arch with broken glass below it. There had once been giant, ornate windows above the entrance, which allowed sunlight to fall inside. They were now shattered. A shockwave from a bomb had shaken them out.
Milo was inside before even looking back.
It was a split entry. Milo picked the basement. A tongue of grey stairs lead down to another set of doors. He was through them in four breaths. He thought he heard footsteps somewhere. You had to be so careful where you moved.
Everything hunted you.
Milo was overlooking a giant space. He thought the building might be a warehouse, but instead it was an old robotics factory. The entire room was one long rotating belt, with a variety of boxes lined up above the curling snake of rubber. Between the boxes were mechanical arms, which were frozen in space like insect wings. A cluster of robots were lined up along the assembly line. They sat tall on a pair of roller wheels, and had no head, only a long cylinder for a torso, which manipulated two stick arms with needle hands.
The entire factory was working. The machines were moving. There was nothing being manufactured on the assembly line, but every contraption was snapped to attention. There was a dull whirl in the air. It mixed with the stench of salt and oil. Cloud light through the broken ceiling illuminated the room like a forgotten painting.
“It’s still working?” Milo said. His eyes followed the brick walls. There had to be a switch to turn everything off. Just to his right, nestled amongst some debris was a shattered box with a big red button. Someone else had attempted to power it down. Milo weaved between piles of glass and split mortar. The sound of the factory would attract insects. Milo was already amazed nothing had appeared yet.
He punched the emergency stop. The entire factory halted. The air became silent and ominous. The robots lurched over the line like dead men.
“There, that did it,” Milo said, confidently.
Then they moved.
At first it seemed like involuntary movement. Shakes, trembles, twists, jolted their oblong bodies. Then the robots started to roll free of the space along the assembly line. They maneuvered around the mounds of debris and each other deftly.
“Oh, they must not be controlled by the master switch,” Milo said. They started to surround him. He couldn’t even count how many there were. He felt like a wounded fish trapped by sharks. Even though the robots had no heads, they were still towering over Milo. Their hands made a forest of points, which could peel apart his skin effortlessly like a chicken. He was trapped.
There was an echo of power being turned on from across the factory floor. The robots quickly rolled away like some sort of ride at an amusement park. Way down, past the assembly line which was now rotating was a little girl manipulating a metal box with enormous levers. Milo couldn’t tell exactly what she looked like.
“They’ll leave you alone if the factory is working,” she yelled. Milo crumbled to his knees. The shock was hitting him.
“They like to work,” she yelled, walking away from the console.
“It gives them a sense of purpose,” she said.
Happy Labor Day! What better way to celebrate than a short story about an automated factory of robots in an apocalyptic wasteland having nothing but work to maintain their existence… well, there’s that. Thank you for reading my work.