A river runs through Austin, bisecting the north and south sides of the city with a horseshoe-shaped bend.
It’s dammed at both ends, which is why Austin residents call it “Lake Austin.”
As with any dammed river, they have to actively maintain it, adjusting the dam for rainfall and cleaning, and working to balance out the artificial ecosystem.
This story begins with that river.
In particular, it begins with that river in a post-apocalyptic Earth when the delicate ecosystem has been unbalanced and populated by a monster who is not of this world.
As a result, a man named Sid and his robot, Michaelangelo, are the only ones left in this city at the end of the world.
Sid could really use a friend.
I give you…
The End of the World Is Better with Friends
by M.G. Herron
I stood on the bridge over the eastern dam, a dozen feet above the water’s surface, and followed Michelangelo’s trail as he whizzed by the pedestrian bridge and then past the collapsed bridge where the bats lived. Ripples in the shallow lake water trailed the quadruped robot as he zoomed toward me.
I noted the time on my stopwatch—just under two minutes—as Michelangelo rounded the corner and came along the final stretch. In the water beside the road, the beast’s slimy tail undulated as it hurried to keep up with the speeding robot. The hair on my neck stood on end. Seeing its wake always gave me the creeps.
Michelangelo took the last corner sharply, barely losing any speed. His dust cloud blew across the bridge, and the robot finally came to a stop next to me. I clicked a button on the stopwatch to mark the time.
“Five oh three! Now that’s what I’m talking about!”
I smacked the solar panels that doubled as the robot’s protective shell—it was squat and low like a turtle, six feet wide at the center. An orange stripe of paint crossed his central panel diagonally. “You didn’t even give Slimeball time to break the surface this run. That’s a new record, Mikey.”
Boys & Their Monsters$2.99
Michelangelo merely tilted his solar panels toward the setting sun, taking advantage of the pause to recharge. He may have been a wicked fast transport bot, but Michelangelo didn’t have the capacity for speech.
With no one to talk to, it could get lonely in this dead city. Since the alien ships inexplicably rose through the atmosphere and departed like a cosmic swarm of satiated mosquitos moving on to their next victim, I had been this city’s sole inhabitant.
Everyone else I had ever known had died during the invasion.
The beast I called Slimeball, whom the alien invaders had left behind, turned and began to make its way back to the center of the lake. Its massive wake described a large, legless serpentine form wriggling under the surface. It was likely heading to its bed at the lowest depth, but I couldn’t really say for sure where it went to rest.
A dam at either end of the lake kept this stretch of water from drying up—and kept Slimeball penned in. I suspected the only reason the aliens hadn’t sucked the fresh water out of this lake, like they had out of Lake Michigan and the other great lakes, was for the sake of this monster.
I had no idea why they left it behind. Maybe they were in a hurry. Maybe they left it to torment the scattered fraction of humanity still struggling to survive on this ravaged world.
Unfortunately, the lake was also the only source of fresh water I had left. That’s why I was making Mikey race. I figured that if I could create a reliable distraction with the robot, I could retrieve enough fresh water to fill my water catch system. This, my last test run, seemed to indicate that the plan had legs.
I pulled aside the panel covering one of the passenger seats inside Michelangelo’s shell, then jumped in and let his guidance system lead us home.
I hung on, gripping the padded safety bars while we drove along streets lined by abandoned and dilapidated skyscrapers. As we turned to head back to the shelter, something moving down near the river caught my attention.
I pulled Michelangelo around in a sharp U-turn, my eyes scanning the tree that lined the lake.
My heart pounded. Had my eyes deceived me?
No. There! A thin figure in a oversized green Army surplus coat and baseball cap. The figure dropped off a tree branch and crept toward the water. I pulled Mikey to a stop and jumped out as I saw the familiar ripples on the surface of the water glide toward the shore.
“Get back!” I shouted. My shock at seeing another person was tempered by the conditioning of fear that several close run-ins with Slimeball had instilled. “The water’s not safe!”
A boy turned and regarded me. His eyes narrowed with distrust. He crouched on the thick tangle of tree roots and lowered a plastic jug into the water.
“Are you deaf? I said the water’s not safe! There’s a monster in there!”
He let the jug fill while he watched me, licking cracked lips. Apparently, fresh water was worth the risk. That was something I could understand, having gone through the trouble of figuring out how to distract Slimeball so I could get fresh water for myself. But the dark hump of Slimeball’s back was rising out of the river now. If I didn’t do something—and fast—the only human I’d seen here in years was going to become a Slimeball snack.
Michelangelo spun his wheels, kicking up a great cloud of dust that immediately enveloped me. I skidded down the sloping bank, grabbed a fistful of the big green coat, and yanked the boy back an instant before Slimeball’s great jaws snapped shut on the tree roots where he’d been crouching. I squinted as a volley of splinters flew overhead. A wave of water knocked us back from the shore.
When Mikey hit the corner and zipped across the dam, Slimeball took the bait, turning from us to trail the robot along the shore again.
I pushed myself up, hauled the boy to his feet, and dragged us both up the muddy bank. I paused when we reached the street and I was sure we were out of Slimeball’s range. I’d only ever seen the creature come a few feet up the shoreline. It seemed to prefer to stay in the water—for the most part.
“I’m sorry,” the boy said. “I—I didn’t know.”
But it was my turn to stare with my jaw hanging open. The voice that came out of the boy’s mouth was…a female voice.
Not only was she the first person I’d seen in over a year, but she was the first woman I had seen in…well, since my mother died. The bulky green army jacket and baseball cap had fooled me. Now, I noticed her narrow shoulders and how the army jacket hung loose on her frame. I stared at her small hands and the dirt under each long fingernail.
She noticed me staring. “What?” she demanded, burying her hands in two of the jacket’s many pockets.
“Nothing.” I reached into my pocket and clicked a button on the remote without looking, ordering Michelangelo to cut his run short and make his way back to retrieve us. Her curiosity seemed to get the best of her then.
“Who are you?” she blurted.
“I’m Sid.” I held my hand out. My palm was very sweaty all of a sudden. “What’s your name?”
“Nina,” the girl whispered. She didn’t take my hand so I let it fall.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“My watering hole dried up last week. Aren’t many left. Had to come down here to find fresh water.”
“Well, you found it. It’s occupied.”
She snorted. “No shit.”
I smiled. She met my eyes, and finally cracked a smile of her own. A giggle burbled up from my gut, and soon we were both chuckling.
Michelangelo came into view and angled toward us. The girl stared at the robot with interest as he came to a stop. I flipped open a panel and took a water bottle out of the back. When I handed it to her, she took a deep drink.
“Easy,” I said.
She eased up. I took the water bottle back and took a careful sip myself. Then I climbed into Michelangelo’s shell under a front panel.
“Want to go for a ride?” I asked.
She hesitated for a moment, gathering her coat about herself, before nodding and climbing in next to me.
“Let’s go home, Mikey.” The robot put our backs to the river in response to the voice command and we rolled into the center of the city. After a dozen blocks, we passed through an open gate and skirted what used to be the state capitol building, back when that meant something to anybody.
“This is incredible,” the girl said, staring up the straight columns at the rotunda.
“You’ve never been here before?”
“Not since I was a little girl.”
“Where are you from?”
“Up north,” she said vaguely.
“Your folks around? Got any family?”
She shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “My parents are gone, too.”
“My mom said the city was here, but…I was always too scared to come see it.”
I nodded. “Their ships filled the sky as far as the eye could see on the day they left.” That was one memory that still frequented my nightmares. “But they’re gone now.”
“My mom said they came for the oil in Texas.”
“My dad said they came to suck the Earth dry.”
“Does it matter why?” she asked.
Michelangelo drove across what used to be a lush green lawn and was now a patch of crab grass and dirt. He finally stopped near a hole in the ground, a perfect rectangle twenty feet across and a hundred feet long.
I popped the panels and climbed out. Nina struggled out of the awkward door after me, caught her foot on a hinge and fell to the grass.
“Sorry,” I said. “I should have helped you out.”
She snorted. “I’m just clumsy, that’s all.”
When she inhaled again, her whole face scrunched up. “What’s that smell?”
I inhaled the rich air deeply. “That is the smell of home.”
“Home?” Nina said. “It smells like farts.”
“Indeed it does.”
Michelangelo rolled to the side and raised his panels up to recharge. Just in time, too. After the time trials and an extra run to distract Slimeball so I could save Nina, his battery was severely depleted.
I waved for Nina to follow me and led her into the building, down a stairwell, and out into a long hall that was positioned directly below the long rectangular hole. Tile went around the outside of the floor. The real treasure was what I’d built in the middle—my garden.
The hallway itself was cleverly built on a perfect east-west axis so that it was exposed to maximum sunlight. When I found the hallway, the floor had been covered in shards of glass and metal—the remnants of the roof. It took me a week to clear the floor. But the submerged shelter made a fantastic garden, naturally sheltered from the wildlife and exposed to plenty of sun.
“Oh my god,” she said. “This is astounding, Sid! How did you get all this dirt and stone and”—her nose wrinkled again—“fertilizer down here?” Without waiting for an answer, she hopped across the stack of loose stones forming a wall around the edge of the garden and stepped gingerly down a row of baby cabbage and red peppers, marveling at the tiny plants, caressing the purple and green leaves.
“Incredible,” she whispered.
“Mikey helped me cart the stones. The soil I pushed in through the ceiling. The fertilizer was scavenged at first, but I make my own now.”
“That’s commitment,” she said. “Is that what you called the robot, Mikey? Where did you find him anyway?”
“In a big glass building northwest of the city. After the ships disappeared, I tracked the robots down. There are hidden treasures all over the city if you know where to look.”
“You mean the ruins,” she said.
We locked eyes. I looked away first.
I hated that word: ruins. It signified something lost. This city wasn’t a ruin to me. It was a lonesome city now, but it was my lonesome city. I could bring it back to life. This garden was proof of that, wasn’t it?
“You are an enigma. Growing vegetables, rescuing robots,” Nina said. “How did you learn all this?”
“My dad taught me about solar panels and robots when I was younger. He worked at a robotics company.”
“What about the garden?”
“That’s been more…trial and error. That’s actually why I was at the river today.”
I nodded. I was excited about the idea and wanted to tell her. I had completely forgotten how fun it was to be able to talk to someone else about your plans.
“I think I found a way to distract Slimeball for five full minutes,” I said. “Imagine how much water I can haul out in five minutes.”
She looked confused. “The garden seems to have done fine. Why do you need the extra water all of a sudden?”
I sighed. “The water catch ran dry, and there’s no sign of rain coming. If I don’t find a way to get extra water, the plants in the garden will be die soon. It will rain eventually, but it could be too late by then.”
“You never used the river water before?”
“You met Slimeball, right?”
“Is that what you call that alien monstrosity?”
“Yeah. He’s gross.”
“So what’s your plan?”
“Okay. Mikey has to be going full speed to get Slimeball’s attention. I think it has something to do with the noise or vibration he makes when he’s cruising along the shore. Slimeball goes apeshit every time. So if we’re at the eastern dam when Mikey starts, and he leads that thing to the other dam and back—two and a half minutes either way—that leaves me 5 minutes to haul water while Slimeball is distracted.”
“And what if your friendly lake monster doesn’t take the bait? Or comes back sooner than you expect?”
I grimaced. “It’s a risk I have to take.”
She sighed. “It’s not the best plan.”
“I’m just saying—”
“Who are you to come in here and tell me my plan is bad? Aren’t you the one whose stupid life I saved like an hour ago?”
“I didn’t know about Slimeball then, okay? If I did, I wouldn’t have gone down to get water. That’s the difference.”
“Wouldn’t you? You seemed pretty dehydrated when I pulled you to safety.”
I glared at her. She rolled her eyes and stepped back into the garden. She wandered through the rows while I fumed. At least she had the decency not to step on any of the plants.
When she found a couple of cherry tomatoes on the ground at the far end, she asked me if it was okay to eat them.
I nodded, relaxing a bit. She brought them back to me with barely contained glee. We each popped a tiny red tomato into our mouths, sighing with contentment as the juice gushed between our teeth.
“You’re right,” she said after she swallowed. “I probably would have tried to get water eventually anyway. I need water to survive.”
“Thanks for saving me.”
I smiled as I chewed on another tomato. I wasn’t sure if I liked tomatoes, but I had learned to appreciate them.
I climbed into the garden and checked things out. I could tell that some of the leaves were starting to shrivel from lack of water. I cursed under my breath for the thousandth time for not planning better, and sooner. My reserve water would only last another few days, and I was already rationing it. And that was for drinking.
Nina wandered off. I didn’t follow her. We’d just met, and I was kind of relieved to be alone again. I’d forgotten how much energy it cost to be around people.
I was disheartened, too, because Nina was right. My plan had flaws. But it was the only plan I had.
By the next morning, I had talked myself back into it. I walked up to ground level and found Nina there. She leaned against Mikey, waiting for me.
“Going ahead with the plan, are you?”
“Unless you have a better idea.”
I tried to ignore her while I checked to make sure Mikey’s power levels were full. The gauge read 98%, which was about as good as it ever got.
“What if he runs out of battery?” Nina asked.
“What if your big fish doesn’t take the bait?”
“Slimeball always takes the bait.”
“What have you got to haul the water in, then?”
“What’s with the thousand questions, Nina? Give me a break, would you?” I looked down at my hand where I held it rigid at my side and noticed it shaking. I made a fist to try to get it to stop.
I walked over to the parking garage and brought back a stack of orange buckets.
“How much water does that hold?” Nina said.
“Six buckets, five gallons each.”
She pursed her lips and nodded.
Her wide-eyed astonishment from yesterday had faded. Now she looked at me with puzzled interest, pursing her lips and rubbing at her neck. Her stressing about my bad plan was kind of cute, in a way. It showed how much she was worried about me.
I popped open Mikey’s back panel and arranged the buckets like a six pack of beer in the rectangular “trunk,” padded with pink insulation I’d cut out of an old house.
“Mikey’s got enough juice to take Slimeball for full lap of the lake—eight miles all told—plus a bit more to get us home. Then he’s out of juice and needs to recharge for a few hours.”
“You don’t happen to have any more buckets do you?”
I slammed the panel down. “I’m afraid not.”
She paced back and forth while I got into the robot.
“Are you coming?”
Nina sighed and climbed in. I let Mikey drive at his lowest speed to the dam, to conserve his battery.
On top of the eastern dam, we unloaded the buckets.
“Right down there, that’s where we’ll fill up.” I pointed down the hill to a stretch of grass that was just a few feet above the waterline.
“Who’s this we? I learned my lesson the first time.”
“Did I say we? I meant me.” I was surprised how easy it was to get back into the habit of speaking collectively.
“So you really plan to run down this hill and haul six buckets of water to safety on top of the dam, where we stand now, in under five minutes?”
I hesitated, then nodded. “Six buckets should be enough. They’re going to be really heavy when they’re full of water, too.”
“We’re both going to die.”
“Who’s this ‘we’?” I said.
She threw her hands up in the air. “Forget it. I don’t want to be involved.”
I clenched my teeth. “Fine. You aren’t part of the plan. Stand way the hell back over there.” I pointed to a small parking lot overlooking the dam.
She scampered up to the paved lot, then sat down cross legged and watched me with a cold stubbornness on her face.
I’d like to see you come up with something better, I thought.
I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself. The plan was good. Solid, well rehearsed. Slimeball was nothing if not predictable. He hated the whine of Mikey’s electric engine at full throttle. And I had timed it—on several separate occasions.
It wasn’t going to be easy, but I was ready.
“Okay, Mikey,” I said, picking up two orange buckets by the plastic handle, one in each hand. “Let’s do this.”
Mikey’s tires screeched as he peeled out and did donuts on the empty bridge. When the telltale wake of Slimeball came zooming toward the dam, I waited until the lake monster was within fifty yards, then let Mikey loose. He careened onto the trail below the parking lot where Nina sat, then around the corner and out of sight along the bank of the river.
Slimeball turned and slithered after him.
That’s when I ran, the orange plastic buckets swinging at my side. I reached the shore in a few seconds, stepped down to the water’s edge—several feet below where the water line used to be, my heightened senses noted distantly—and lowered one orange bucket into the water, and then the other. When I picked them up again, the thin metal handles bent nearly straight with the weight of the water. I staggered up the hill, struggled to keep the buckets level and the water from spilling.
A minute later, I sloshed the first two buckets onto the top of the dam, gasping for breath and cursing my clumsiness for the loss of the precious water. I knew then that the one thing I hadn’t planned for was my own fitness. Scavenging in the city and gardening did not prepare a person to run uphill carrying forty pounds of water in each hand.
I put my hands on my knees to catch my breath, checked the stopwatch. Already two minutes gone. I yelled against the pain to get my motivation up, grabbed two more empty buckets, and sprinted back to the shore.
I filled two more buckets and was on my way back up the hill to the top of the dam when Nina ran full tilt down the hill past me, the last two buckets swinging at her side.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Helping you with your stupid plan!”
I was overburdened with the buckets and unable to change her mind, though it had been clear to me mere moments ago how much she disapproved of my plan. At the top of the hill, I eased the two full buckets of water to the ground and, my arms shaking with tremors, interlaced my fingers on top of my head to catch my breath. Nina was in the water now, filling the second bucket.
I stood and cupped my hands to my mouth. “Nina! Hurry!”
Beyond her, the S-shape of Slimeball’s massive body harpooned through the dark water, headed straight for the shoreline.
I jumped from the bridge and practically tumbled down the steep hill as I raced toward her. Nina hauled the second bucket up to the shore then got herself out of the water.
From water level, the only sign of Slimeball in the water was a subtle dark wave on the otherwise placid surface. I reached Nina, took a bucket from her, and together we sprinted up the hill. Nina was fresh and pulled ahead of me easily. I got halfway up the hill when my foot caught on a small rock and sent me skidding to my knees. My water spilled and soaked into the thirsty soil in an instant.
I pushed myself up and walked the rest of the way up to the bridge with a mostly empty bucket. Mikey was parked there, Nina standing next to him. Following Nina’s gaze, I turned and tracked Slimeball’s slithering form as it circled near the dam three or four times, snapped up a mouthful of water in apparent frustration, and finally sank below the surface.
I looked back at Nina.
“Stupid plan,” she said. But her eyes smiled.
“It worked, didn’t it?”
“That it did.”
I knew just how fast Slimeball could move, so I didn’t even try to go back to refill the bucket I’d spilled.
We needed at least 3 hours so Mikey could recharge, and I didn’t want to get stuck out here. Back to the garden we went, and we celebrated the meager victory by sharing a small cucumber.
Still, though we didn’t voice it at first, both Nina and I were left with a grim outlook. After watering the garden, separating out some drinking water that needed sanitizing, and accounting for the loss of water due to our clumsiness, we netted maybe five gallons to add to the water catch.
“At this rate it’s going to take us a year to fill this thing up.”
“Six months, tops,” I said.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Just being practical.”
Over the course of the next three days, we made several more runs, but my mood didn’t improve. If it was sunny enough to recharge Mikey quickly, and we had the guts, we could do three runs a day. But even that barely added water to the catch system faster than it evaporated. Nina had the smart idea of lashing makeshift lids on top of the buckets to cut down on the spillage while we were driving. But after a week, the water was still only up a few inches.
“That garden is too big, Sid,” Nina insisted. “It soaks up almost all of the water we collect. No wonder you emptied the water catch so fast.”
My instinct was to disagree with her, to argue, but Nina was right. Again. My garden was big, and beautiful, and full of fresh food—something that, during the invasion, I had dreamed about while I survived on scraps. But I couldn’t keep up with it.
“So what do I do?”
Nina looked sadly at the garden. “You make it smaller.”
I shook my head. “I can’t.”
Slash into my own garden? The thought made me sick. I was incapable of destroying something I’d spent so long cultivating.
Damn you, Slimeball.
“I need to think,” I said. “I’m going for a walk.”
I could breathe a little easier after I had put several thousand steps between myself and the garden. I headed to the same place I always went to think: the studio.
In the basement of the downtown building, I crossed my fingers behind my back and flipped the switch on the generator in the boiler room. It hummed to life and I sighed with relief.
Every time it worked, it was a marvel. I knew the generator would quit one day, just like the power grid had stopped working, just like the water had cut off. I never let it run for long. But for now, for this moment, I had power. And it felt good.
I took the stairs two at a time out of the basement, then up another three levels. On the top floor, I entered a reception area with TONE DEAF MUSIC in giant black letters set on the wall. I walked past the receptionist’s desk and across an office space where several sets of cubicles, long ago abandoned, occupied the floor.
I stopped at the last door and gently touched the carved oak panels. Someone had cared about this place enough to lock it up nice and tight when people began to flee the city in earnest. It had been in pristine condition when I found it.
The French doors swung open at my touch and I entered a lushly carpeted recording studio. I didn’t have any use for the microphone. Instead, I went straight to the bar cart and poured myself a huge glass of whisky from the bottles kept there. Finally, I sat in the producer’s swivel chair before a panel of instruments. My hands glided over the buttons and keys.
“No. Freaking. Way,” Nina said from the door.
I groaned. “Why did you follow me here?”
She shrugged. “You’re the only person I’ve met in…God, I don’t even know how long. I was curious where you were going. Plus, I like you.”
“You’re kind of a nuisance, you know that?”
“You like being bothered.” She beamed at me with an impish little grin.
I glared at her, saying nothing. I couldn’t stay mad at her for long. Slowly, my lips turned up into my smile.
“Don’t you have somewhere else to be?”
Her expression darkened. “I’ve been living like an animal in the countryside for months. Eating roots and grasses and berries, afraid to leave my little spot even as the water was drying up.” She took my glass of whisky from my hand. Took a sip, grimaced, and handed it back. “Why did they leave all this stuff here?”
“It’s just stuff.”
“Remarkable stuff. Look at this,” Nina insisted. “It gives you some comfort, doesn’t it?”
I nodded reluctantly. “It does. That’s why I come here.”
“Do you know how it works?” she asked.
I nodded, and pressed a couple keys on the instrument panel. A deep, sonorous baritone soared into the room.
“Ahh,” Nina sighed. “He has a beautiful voice. Who is this?”
I smiled. “His name is Frank Sinatra.”
I turned the dial and the old sound board cut to another track. Frank’s voice was replaced by the crooning guitars of the Beatles.
She gasped and grabbed my shirt in with one hand. “Does the radio work? How did you—”
“How is that even playing?”
“The music is playing off a computer built into this soundboard. Someone loaded a bunch of classics onto it, which I guess they were either playing for their own entertainment or mixing into songs in this studio. There’s a radio, but all I’ve found is static.”
“Do you mind if I look?”
“Go ahead.” I pointed to the short-wave radio controls. “There were a few broadcasts running on the shortwave channels when I first found this place, but they’ve died off. I don’t know exactly how it works, but I’m guessing that without the radio towers there’s no way to broadcast to us here. This is only a receiver so I was never able to communicate with anyone.”
“Can you show me how it works?”
I pointed to the tuner. “Here, this one adjusts the frequency. Turn it to the left or right to adjust.”
She rolled all the way to the end, then back through varying degrees of static and blips of silence. I’d done much the same when I first found this place.
She rolled the dial slowly back—and came to rest on a new voice, a voice I had never heard before.
I sat up in my chair. Nina looked at me with wide eyes that sparkled with wonder. The sound came through faintly, and crackling with static, but we could clearly make out the urgent voice of a confident woman.
“—Colorado. We are located in the Rocky Mountains near Colorado Springs. New citizens welcome. Bring only what you can carry. The roads are rough, but if you come looking for us, we will find you. Attention! This is the President of New Colorado. We are located in the Rocky Mountains near Colorado Springs. New citizens welcome…”
The recording ran on repeat. Ninas eyes remained wide. Her mouth hung open.
“Have you ever heard that one before?” she finally asked.
“No,” I said. “That’s new to me.”
“We should go.”
“What?” I heaved a sigh. “No way.”
“What do you mean no way? Did you hear that? President of New Colorado? That means there are people up there—more than there are here.”
“It could just be one crazy lady in the mountains with a radio!”
“You don’t know that.”
“You don’t know it’s not.” I silenced the radio. Damn her for ruining my peaceful moment. If I had time, I could come up with a good solution to the garden problem. I knew I could.
Nina stood up and paced in front of me. “Look,” she said. “The past few days have been great. Finding you gave me hope again. You have fresh food and water here, but how long will it really last? Plus, you have to contend with Slimeball. These ruins—”
I drew a breath to object, but she corrected herself first.
“—this city is dead. What you’ve built is remarkable, how you’ve thrived in a world where everything has died off…but I took a real risk coming south. I was looking for other survivors, and I’m glad I found you. But if there are others out there? If there’s a city in Colorado…a real city of survivors…”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I’m saying that maybe if we take a chance we’ll find this New Colorado—and a place where we can live without worrying about how we’re going to get fresh water every day. Now that I know there are other people out there…I don’t know, Sid. I can’t just sit on my hands and not do anything about it.”
“But this is my city. The garden. Mikey…”
“This isn’t your city! That giant, alien killer fish let’s you stay in its city.”
I shoved the seat back as I stood, my fists balled at my sides. “This is my city,” I said. “Not Slimeball’s. You can screw right off to Colorado if you want. I’m not leaving.”
I stormed out of the studio. Nina turned the volume on the radio back up as I left. I stopped by the basement and turned the generator off on my way out, just to spite her. I regret to say that I walked quickly, hoping that Nina would lose my trail this time and get lost on her way back.
Maybe if she was lost she wouldn’t be so damned excited to wander north in search of a fictitious city in the Rocky Mountains that may not even exist.
Nina was at the garden before me in the morning. I had no idea when she’d gotten back or where she’d slept or what she’d eaten. I didn’t ask.
“That was mean, turning off the generator,” she said.
“You don’t know how to use it. You wouldn’t have turned it off if I didn’t do it.”
“You could have warned me first. It was really hard getting out of that building in the dark.”
I busied myself packing the buckets into Mikey’s trunk. She stood with her arms crossed and watched me as I drove off.
The morning water haul went fine, even without Nina. After more than a week of the suicide runs, my hands and arms had gotten stronger and I’d grown accustomed to the distance. I made it up the hill with the last two buckets with thirty seconds to spare.
Drunk on my own doing, I took a break for a garden snack and to charge Mikey. Impatient to be off again, I drove Mikey away from the garden when he was just a little bit under 90% charged.
At the dam, I sent Mikey off and sprinted down to the water, easily hauling up the first two buckets with no incident. The second two went slower than I’d hoped, but I was worn down a bit from the hard morning session.
I pushed myself for the third and final set of buckets. Time was on my side. Mikey cut down off the trail right as I crested the dam. The buckets went down. Mikey zoomed around onto the road, and then up on top of the bridge that went over the dam.
I could see him decelerating as he crossed the bridge. I had pushed him too hard and he was out of power. He came to rest in the middle. I began to walk toward him—
And then a giant, wet, black maw with rows upon rows of sharp teeth came over the dam and crunched into Mikey’s shell, snapping two of the panels clean off. Slimeball’s massive body lurched and cracked the pavement in its haste to grab Mikey and cram him into its mouth. I lunged for a bar on the robot’s frame, grabbed onto it with both hands. Slimeball was too strong. It snapped Mikey back and forth. The metal of the robot’s frame slammed into my shoulder and sent me sprawling to the pavement.
When I caught my breath, I was on the bridge alone. Slimeball was gone, and a huge broken gap in the road fell straight down a dozen feet into the dark water below. It was a miracle I hadn’t fallen in.
“Mikey…” I said. I limped to the edge of the hole, picked up a broken panel off the ground.
And let it slip through my fingers back back to the pavement.
When Nina saw me walking in, bloody and scraped, limping back toward the garden with no buckets in hand, she gasped and ran to me, put her hands gently on my bruised arm.
I jerked out of her grasp.
“Haven’t you left for Colorado yet?” I said.
My skin was hot. I wanted to take a big club and smash something. I wanted to put a red hot harpoon into Slimeball’s cold alien heart. I wanted to scream.
“Are you hurt?” Nina asked quietly.
I could say nothing. It was like my jaw was wired shut.
She put herself in front of me until I was forced to stop walking.
“Sid, what happened?”
I looked away. I couldn’t say it. Nina hugged me until I collapsed to the earth, sobbing.
“Slimeball got Mikey,” I managed to say. “It got him. He’s gone.”
A horrible keening sound escaped my throat. Nina held me as I grieved for the loss of my oldest friend.
Three days later, I had scavenged a pack for Nina and filled it with a new water bottle and as much food from the garden as I could fit.
“Here you go,” I said. “This makes it easier to shrink the garden if you take some with you.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to come?”
“This is my city,” I insisted.
“I’ll miss you, Sid.”
I looked at my feet.
“Are you going to get a new Mikey?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“You’ll find another one,” she said. “I got something for you, too.”
I followed her around the corner of the old Capitol building. I don’t know where she found it or how she got it there, but she brought me to a thick hose attached to a manual crank pump. It was all in pieces…but it was there. It would take me a while, but if I could figure out how to make it work, maybe I could pump water out of the lake without Slimeball noticing. My brain began to spin with the idea.
“I thought you could use this,” she said.
“How did you find this?”
She shrugged, and gave me that now-familiar impish grin. “There are hidden treasures all over the city if you know where to look.”
I shook my head. “Thank you, Nina.”
The road north was easy to find. I led her to the wide four-lane highway, empty except for the dusty cars that had been abandoned on its shoulders, and pointed her north.
“You’re on this road for a long, long time. When you get to Salina, go west on 70. That’ll lead you straight into Denver. From there you can go south to Colorado Springs. There’s a map in your pack if you get lost.”
“I’ll find them. And then I’ll find that radio and change the message so you know I found them, and then you can come, too.”
We hugged and said goodbye. We had our differences, but I was fond of the spunky little tomgirl.
The next day, I went back to the robotics lab. Nina had been right. I found another Mikey. Had to replace his battery, and remove the speed governor, but it was the same model, and he ran smooth.
I named him Leonardo and painted a wide blue stripe on his central panel.
Soon, Leo and I were down at the dam. That water catch wasn’t going to fill itself.
I looked down at the turtle-shaped robot. I looked at the buckets at my feet.
What am I doing, stealing water in my own city?
“God damnit, Leo,” I said.
Talking out loud used to comfort me. But after spending all that time with Nina, the words now felt hollow.
Talking was only good when someone else was listening.
And as useful as he was, Leo also didn’t know how to talk.
I sent Leo around the dam and collected a few buckets, despite the melancholy that had overcome me at Nina’s departure.
I started thinking maybe I had been alone too long and didn’t know how to connect with people. I started thinking maybe I drove Nina away.
After Leo returned from his lap around the lake, I watched Slimeball circle near the dam several times before settling under the water.
I climbed in under Leo’s shell and drove with the water back to the garden.
And as I approached, I felt my melancholy melt away. Someone was there waiting for me.
“Nina!” I said.
She turned at the sound of my voice. Nina had tied the big green coat around her lean waist, and it swayed with her hips as she walked back toward me. A corner of her mouth twitched up in a smirk.
“What are you doing here?”
“Well, I gave it some thought and figured that you could use an extra hand around here. Besides, the plans you seem to be able to come up with on your own aren’t always the best plans.”
I snorted. “So what do you call walking north to Colorado by yourself?”
She nodded and put her hand to her chin, as if deep in thought. “You’re right. That was a terrible plan. So, I guess we need each other then.”
“What makes you think I need you? I can survive on my own.”
“I know you can,” Nina said. “But where’s the fun in that? The end of the world is better with friends.”
Read more by M.G. Herron
This story is reprinted from the collection Boys & Their Monsters. Support M.G. Herron by buying and reading it or other tales of science fiction/fantasy adventure. Available for purchase directly in my bookshop, or shop online at your favorite retailer!