The Robots
Clive McAlpin

They have been in charge for several years now and things are different for all of us.

The takeover was not quick but it seemed inevitable from the beginning. When we realized that the robots cared more than we did it was very difficult to maintain any kind of front against them. When a sector was taken, those in other sectors would say things like, ‘good thing it wasn’t us,’ or, ‘well those fools had it coming.’

Right from the start it was clear that they had qualities we did not. The robots had a spirit of teamwork; we were herded by our officers and threatened with decimation. The robots were willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause, falling in showers of golden sparks that smelled of ozone like thunderheads. We died yowling, more often from wounds in the back than in the front. They offered us compromise: vassalship, liberal indenture. We would accept nothing but total submission; we spat hysterical invective at their insubordination.

In the end they decided not to exterminate us. They are interested in our culture. They have a predilection for activities that we never allowed them to meddle with before they took control.

They ski, and when one tumbles the others laugh awkwardly and mechanically, though if the humans who service the skis laugh with them there is trouble.

They paint, with varying results. They have less difficulty emulating the old masters than, say, Van Gogh or Picasso, but a Botticelli will overwhelm any painting by a robot with which it shares a wall. They have a complex relationship with Miro. He fascinates them because they cannot emulate his uncertain, simple shapes (because, I think secretly, they have never been half-asleep or felt pain).

The robots write, but they fare worse in this medium even than in the visual arts. A robot can produce a story, yes, with profluence, narrative flow, even characters taken from human models. But every sentence a Robot produces betrays its lame, mechanical consciousness. They have achieved a certain vain glory in crafting elaborate detective stories in the style of Rex Stout, though only because they have internalized every volume he ever wrote. Their mysteries are inevitably intricate, but their protagonists have none of the humanity of Nero Wolfe or Sherlock Holmes.

The robots are generally frustrated and embarrassed at their pathetic achievements in the arts. If they’d listen to me, though, I’d tell them to stick at it. I’m not sure why, but it seems that if they work hard enough and long enough their fakery will become real; in the fever of composition, robot and page will blur, and their imitations will become art. Every day they get a little better.

Jonathan Dittman

The man was forty-six when he died in his lover’s arms and not his wife’s. The man, a steadfast adherent to the anachronistic mentality of the Fifties in which possessing a wife and a paramour was human nature, did not die at the hands of a clichéd and vindictive housewife, but was instead undone by a .22 caliber slug ejected from a gun by a random passerby outside a dive in East Detroit.

The bullet, while not striking the intended victim, did perform its intended function and felled a man by piercing his thigh and rupturing his femoral artery. A faint breath of smoke, like an autumnal exhalation, floated from the barrel and dissipated. Upon the realization of his err, the gunman gesticulated a “my bad” apology with his shoulders.

Aside from the palpable observation that he would not be dying outside this particular bar if he had only remained faithful, he also realized he would be taking his final breaths next to a woman who was nothing more than a receptacle. As the gunman fled, the dying man tried to tell him it was alright, that he deserved it, but his words faltered under the weight of Ginny’s cries for help. Instead of hearing the comforting utterances of his wife, he would be subjected to the spastic ramblings of a high-pitched woman screaming Oh my Gawd, Harold! Oh my Gawd!

Even though he was dying, he laughed.

In the movies, a bullet always seemed to kill instantly. The imperceptible clang of the hammer striking the casing overcome by the miniature explosion inside the chamber as it hurled the slug through the barrel at more than 1,000 feet per second was fictitiously depicted as having the ability to stop a man cold. If only that were true; to the man, eternity was not found in the afterlife, but in dying. Perhaps if the bullet had struck him in the chest, or better yet, the head, his life would’ve ended in such a manner, but ironically, his kill shot was a mere inch or two from his groin, a location decidedly more painful and poetic than the aforementioned.

As the man lay dying, he saw the translucent silhouette of his wife standing above him. Her face was stern yet apologetic. The man’s wife bent down and cupped his jaw.

“Oh, Harold. What have you gotten yourself into?”

“I’m sorry, Carrie,” he said. The words carried a stupid weight that seemed to plunk down in the pool of blood that surrounded his lap and spread in crimson blossoms on the mottled pavement beneath his legs.

Harold’s head seemed to sink lower, as if it were folding upon his sternum; the bony lump assured him he was fading. Moments earlier, he had lamented his eternal dying but now the man longed for more time. He even started to pray but stopped once he heard Ginny strangle another Gawd within her throat.

As the heaviness of death pulled his eyelids downward, Harold was unsure what his terminus beheld. But he was certain that his death would not be a private act; it would be a very public affair. Gaping strangers, paramedics and first responders, adulterous lovers, ethereal wives – all would be privy to the mortal failings of his body. And Harold knew that those watching did not do so with sympathy but with fear of their own unraveling. That Harold was the one dying was of no importance to these voyeurs; it was Death itself they leered at.

With each compression, Harold’s head shook to the side; the distant hands of the paramedic shoved downward in cardiac rhythm: 1-2-3-4…

The shape of his wife tried to speak but Harold simply looked past her, into the throng of watchers, and heard nothing. The externalization of his own pain was too great.

Stop looking! Harold screamed from unmoving lips at the intrusive spectators.

Harold fixated on those around him. He fumed at the man hovering above him – 9-10-11-12 – cursed his lover cradling her knees at his side. He wanted to die, now, and end the judging eyes of those around him, those empty souls staring with fake concern. As the distant breath of the paramedic entered his unresponsive lungs, the man could no longer summon his wife back. She had finally left him.

Il Sorcio
Daniele De Serto
Translation by Tiziana Rinaldi Castro

I knew it was poison. I knew it.

It was way too close to the sample we examined at the hideout last week. But I couldn't resist the scent of vanilla and that yummy shape. What an idiot!

The symptoms are the same ones we had been shown: choking, thirst, and disorientation.

I also know who placed this fatal treat. He was the guy on the ground floor, the beast with hairy arms and cavernous eyes. Up until a few months ago, he had lived with his wife, a beautiful and elegant woman. Now she gone, and the police came several times to ask questions.

Anyway, it was him whom I heard complain to others in the building because he wanted the extermination, or he threatened to call the Health Department. Already this summer, he had placed a couple of the poison treats around, and one of us had ended belly up. Since that day, though, no one else had fallen for his trap. At the hideout, we have learned to recognize the symptoms of the Bromadiolone and other similar substances that screw your vitamin K. That shit hinders the blood from coagulating, and you are fucked.

This poison is new stuff, though. It must be that Murdex, or whatever the hell it is called, for everyone was talking about it on the other side of Rome. There was some mentioning of internal bleeding. God, I am thirsty. I have to drink something and then run to warn the others. At least, I would die a heroic death… if I could find the way.

What does my self-preservation instinct say? It should kick in by now, set me on the right path, or suggest a prayer if nothing else. I can’t recall if I had already been over this way. Yes, I had. This is the roof's gutter from where I could see the entire Quadraro. It’s beautiful from up here, and with its grainy light, jerry-rigged fences, and buildings seemingly embracing one another, it looks like a village from a time long past.

I’d stop and take in the scenery if not for all these crumbs in my stomach firing up. They remind me of the mad sparks that steel grinders produce, those for which you need to wear a protective mask. I saw someone handling one the day the woman from the ground floor disappeared.

In fact, the two men who were working on the outside ladder leading from the courtyard to the terrace where our hideout is. I was browsing around, drawn by the cascade of flaming droplets; it was a real show! Those guys literally sliced the ladder and then welded the pegs back together to their liking. I admit to being careless, but I couldn’t help getting closer. That’s when I heard them muttering. They were organizing some sort of plan, saying that the husband’s orders had changed and that the body had to be transported somewhere else. They spoke also about having some fun before doing the job.

Then they moved into action.

I followed them when they went downstairs and threw her onto the ground.

In turn, they lowered themselves over her and moved as if they were to suffocate her with their big bodies, always keeping one hand pressed over her mouth.

Her face was sticking up over their backs mottled with sweat, and she looked at me with dull eyes.

Dull, yet sweet, I think she was the first woman whom I didn’t disgust. For the entire time in which those dirty bellies overwhelmed her, she looked at me. Every now and then her gaze seemed lost, as if nothing could be grasped in the room, let alone a few inches long creature, but then she would reemerge from her daze and she’d search for me again, like a castaway searching for a branch to cling to. Eventually one of them stood up, switched on the infernal tool and I ran away.

Go figure why I remember this now while I’m losing all my strength. I can hardly catch my breath; it is as if a bag of sand had been emptied on my chest. Something tells me that I won’t make it back to the hideout. Anyway, the truth is I've never forgotten that woman’s expression or the anguish in her breathing. Never. Maybe I will meet her again now, but I doubt she’d let me climb her legs.

Oh, never mind now, never mind...

Accidentally Getting Off on the Tenth Floor
Russ Bickerstaff

He’d exited the world by walking into the wrong office. He was supposed to get off on the floor 12. He’d gotten off on floor ten. Every floor in tat building was laid-out exactly the same way with exactly the same number of doors with exactly the same numbers on them. He would not have expected to walk into the room and see what he saw, but there it was: his office. Perfectly natural and perfectly to be expected but for the fact that it was on the tenth floor instead of the twelfth one.

His intern at the front desk looked more than a little confused as he walked in. She looked at him like she wanted to say something but she did not know how. The words simply weren’t there for her. So he walked back to his office to find that he was there at the desk. Except he was there at the desk while he walked in to see him sitting there at the desk. He had made it all the way to his desk before he noticed that he was already sitting there at the desk. And it was really embarrassing running into himself, so he backed out of his office. On his way out, he distinctly remembered seeing himself sitting there doing the work that he was going to do when he’d gotten back into the office. The work appeared to have been finished.

On his way past the front desk, his intern was staring at him wide-eyed and confused. He had suspected that she’d snuck in to see him standing there in front of himself. He instinctively raised an index finger to his mouth while making eye contact with her. She nodded without saying a word. Evidently he didn’t want him to know that he’d come in to see him finishing up the work for some reason. As he got back into the elevator the biggest mystery was not why it was that he had gone into an office on the tenth floor to run into a perfect copy of himself doing the same work that he was working on in his office on the twelfth floor. The real question was why he had wanted to keep it a secret from himself that he had snuck in on himself doing the work.

He had gotten back to his office and saw his intern sitting there as though nothing had happened. He’d thought about possibly requesting that she go down to the office on ten to drop off some paperwork, but he figured that such an action would probably be at least a little cruel. Life was complicated enough for his intern without having to run into herself on another floor.

He had returned to his desk to find that all of his work was complete. And he didn’t remember doing it, but he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. So he told his intern to kick off early and decided to take the rest of the day off. On his way home, he seemed to remember that there was something strange that he’d run into at work that he could not remember. He tried to remember what it was. Over dinner he would tell his wife that something strange happened at work but he couldn’t remember what it was. And she would remind him that he always said that at dinner. He would be a little nonplussed about this, but quickly put it out of his mind.

The Couple
Kristina England

They are short and stout, the type of folks you'd think could have a jolly ole laugh. Nothing about their appearance says survivors.

It is the house they lived in that speaks the story. Leveled to the ground, it tells of a hard wind that twisted bedrooms, clothes, even kitchen utensils into remnants of themselves.

The couple wasn't home when their life got swept clean, but their dog was. They found him in the basement trembling from the aftershock of his own Armageddon. He died two hours later, while the woman held him in her arms, rubbed the back of his ears, and gave him the okay to let go.

It only happened five days ago. They look a little lost for sleep, but that's it.

They tell the reporter to come back in a year when the worst has sunk in. Right now they have shelter, meals from the neighbors, the possibility of an insurance claim.

In a year, all of that could change.

The husband shrugs and squeezes his wife's hand.

"Either way, we'll be just fine."

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