It started snowing at 11am. Though I have a birds-eye view of the parking lot from my second-floor window, frost coats the edges of the glass, leaving only a small porthole to peer through. I can see the snow piling up near the electric fence and slowly creeping its way across the battered pavement towards the warehouse where I'm stationed.
There are no cars in the lot. Everyone was sent home months ago because of the pandemic, except for the five of us—the skeleton crew—who needed to be onsite in case anything breaks and needs fixing.
Aedna and Hal do the hardware stuff, fitting the robots with new wheels and cameras. Kash and Mo do the software stuff, something about algorithms and coding. Anyway they tell the robots where to go, what to pick up. Then there’s me, Alex. My job is to keep the floors clean so the robots can see the painted lines and find their way through the tidy maze of boxes full of books and dumbbells and blow-up dolls. Though I suppose there's a lot less demand for that stuff now.
1pm. The snow looks about a foot deep, falling in big, fat, heavy flakes. When the wind kicks up, the flakes swirl like those sufi whirling dancers I saw on youtube once. They wore long white tunics and skirts, and twirled like crazy, their hair flying out beneath their tubular hats. Huh, how did they keep the hats on? Maybe they stapled them to their heads. Anyway, you stare at those swirling flakes long enough and you get mesmerized. Hypnotized. You are feeling sleepy, very sleeeeepy, Alex. Very relaxed. Long deep breaths. Nothing can hurt you now, Alex. You’re in a safe place.
I’ve eaten all the food in the communal kitchen, except for a jar of anchovies, because that’s gross. Aedna loves anchovies. She puts them on salads and toast and pizza for Christ's sake. What kind of a degenerate puts anchovies on pizza?
Pizza. I could really go for a slice of Louie’s famous pepperoni pizza, but I doubt old Louie is still making pizza pie, even if I could call him. The phones haven’t worked for weeks. The landlines went first, and then the mobile phones. Mo left as soon as the phones were cut off. His wife was seven months’ pregnant. They might have had the baby by now.
3pm. A foot and a half of snow, and some small drifts forming. I’d turn on the news to hear the weather report but we’ve not had TV or radio broadcasts for about ten days. It doesn’t matter much anyway. It’s not like I have a car or somewhere to go. The first news report after the phones went down said there was some kind of glitch in the system, but we found out it later it was purposefully destroyed. Sab-o-tage.
The generator is still working, powering the lights and dormant computers, but there's no warmth running through the radiators. It's gotten so cold the past few days that I've finally resorted to wearing Kash's goose down parka. It was hanging in the cloakroom on the ground floor. I kept thinking he'd come back to get it, but I guess he can't be bothered.
And as much I'd love to order an electric heater with same-day delivery, that's a no-go since the internet went dark last week. That’s also when Kash and Aedna decided to leave. Hal was disappointed, he didn’t think they should abandon their posts. I could hear them arguing all the way from from Hal's office as I stirred my cup-o-soup.
My favourite flavor of cup-o-soup is tomato, though chicken noodle isn't bad either. I glance toward the trash bin near the elevator. The styrofoam cup with remnants of red pulp is still perched on top. I was throwing it in the bin when Aenda and Kash asked if I wanted to leave too. They were getting a ride from Hal.
But Hal was already in the elevator, impatiently swinging a keyring round his left index finger while holding the door open with his right. I could tell he was in a hurry and didn't want to wait for me. I shook my head in a silent 'no thanks' and waved as the elevator doors closed. That was seven days ago. I've been on my own since.
4pm. At least two feet of snow with drifts twice as high, climbing up the fence. My fingers absently twirl the key fob in my coat pocket. It unlocks the stock room in the basement that I’ve cleaned every day for months. Correction, every day except the past seven days. Can you call yourself a skeleton crew if there's only one of you? I'm just a thigh bone on my own.
And this thigh bone ain't getting any warmer or fatter watching the world turn white. Time to see if I can find a heater and some food in the labyrinth of bar-coded boxes.
I take the stairs to the basement because I don’t trust the elevator. If I get stuck, who am I gonna call? I press the key fob against the panel near the stock room door and hear the familiar sound of bolts moving, clicking, and unlocking. I pull the door open and step in. It looks pretty much like I remember. A big room, the size of a football field with a 30-foot ceiling and rows of metal shelves stacked to the brim with boxes, creating narrow corridors where the robots roam.
The motion-activated lights nearest me wake up. I notice my breath rising in little puffs of steam and rub my hands together to warm them. It's always cold in here, but it cuts to the bone today. On my left, I spot the dim shapes of the robots, sleeping in their bays. The size of squat washing machines, they're two feet tall, but powerful enough to move rolling shelves loaded with laptops, and Barbie dolls, and barbecue grills.
All the bays are full except one. I make a mental note to look out for the rogue robot. It's probably roving the corridors, trying to find its way back to the recharging roost before its battery dies. If I run across it, I'd like nothing more than to ask, 'hey bud, take me to the cups-o-soup', because I have no idea how things are organised. The cardboard boxes have bar codes or RFID tags, whatever those are. All I know is that I don’t read robot.
I pick a row at random and grab one of the boxes on the shelf that’s waist-high. I cut it open with my pen knife and fish around inside to find out what I’ve won. Tampons. The next box along has tubes of toothpaste. I pocket a few, and try another row, venturing deeper into the room. More lights flicker on.
The smell hits me first.
It reminds me of the time I came back to my apartment after two weeks away to find my pet rat, Mable, dead and decomposing in her cage. I thought I’d pretty much lost my sense of smell over the years, but whatever this is, it’s pungent. Maybe some meat has spoiled?
I hear a noise, a faint whirring sound. I hold my breath and walk quietly toward it.
It’s the wayward robot, poking around the corner of a row, fifteen-feet dead ahead. I breathe out in relief, releasing a large cloud of steam. Approaching the robot, I see that the back wheels are trying to turn, but something is preventing escape.
Rounding the corner, I see the source of the stalemate. A bloody tablecloth is twisted around the robot's front wheels. Kash is kneeling on the floor, half-slumped against a shelf. A perfect bullet hole mars his forehead, but there are no other signs of struggle. Aedna is lying face down, her torso bent over a crushed box of tablecloths, blood soaking through the contents. Her right hand rests limply on the trapped robot.
I hear breathing behind me. I turn slowly.
Hal is standing in front of me, holding a gun casually in one hand, and an opened can of kidney beans in the other. He smiles, offers me the beans and says, “Guess we’ll be a proper skeleton crew tonight.”