The Running of the Robots

Sergeant Alberto S. Mendoza (U.S. Army, Retired) always stayed indoors during the Running of the Robots. The damned things were dangerous.

In the early years, Homeland Security had advised everyone to stay in their basements until the bots had passed. But now the Running was almost a public holiday in Dallas, just as it was in San Diego and Nagasaki. Downtown, rooftops and bars would be crowded with spectators. The citizens of Dallas flocked to celebrate this minor public nuisance, but could not be bothered to attend the Veterans Day Parade. Shameful.

Mendoza couldn’t bear to ignore the bots entirely. So he settled into his easy chair, Patton curled at his feet, to watch through the window. When the warning siren sounded, Patton barked and put his front paws on the windowsill. Mendoza had read online that 986 bots would pass through Dallas, three fewer than last year. Two had fallen into a volcano in Japan. One had gone missing on the Atlantic seafloor somewhere between Morocco and South Carolina.

The first bot came thundering down Sycamore Road at dusk. Minimal corrosion on armor, sensor cluster intact, all six legs swinging in relentless rhythm. Not bad for a machine receiving no maintenance in 16 years.

After it thudded west towards the Interstate, Mendoza exhaled slowly. Its internal reactors wouldn’t run out of fuel for decades. It would return in another 11 months, leaving behind a trail of trampled shrubbery and dented mailboxes.

Mendoza could have retired to some other place that wasn’t on the 32nd parallel. But he’d been born in Dallas, and he’d damn well die there, despite the errant bots. Despite scornful civilians. When he first moved into his ranch-style house, the neighbors had shunned him, as if his physical presence would attract the bots and lower their property values.

A second bot came pounding down the road. Its chassis was blackened and warped, probably from the tactical nuke the Chinese had tried against the bots that first year. A branch of blooming roses dangled incongruously from its primary turret.

As Mendoza got a Corona from the fridge, Patton barked at the front door. For a moment, Mendoza thought the bots had come for him, after all these years. He shook off the delusion, walked slowly to the front hall, and opened the door. The gleaming plastic visor, alarming at first, was only a guy in a motorcycle helmet. Mendoza pulled the biker in, and shut the door.

The biker removed his helmet. “Thanks, man.” He was just a kid.

Mendoza didn’t want to shelter this thrill-seeker who thought it was brave to ride among the bots. Mendoza had served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Estonia. Real bravery then meant doing your duty every day under enemy fire. Real bravery now meant bypassing the drive-thru at Lottaburger, and going inside to eat at a table, ignoring the stares and whispers.

The kid set his helmet on the table. “I’m Ben, by the way. My bike has a busted — hey, you’re that guy. You’re him. The robot guy.”

Mendoza said nothing and returned to his easy chair. Patton, unused to visitors, growled.

Ben followed and sprawled uninvited on the sofa. “I wrote a paper about you in freshman year.”

Mendoza scowled. He had no reason to be ashamed. The Special Committee had said his actions were only a minor factor in the “accident waiting to happen.” The true causes were “flawed software architecture,” “multiple systems failure,” and “no culture of safety at the Army’s Yuma Proving Grounds.” But Mendoza was the public face of the incident, more tangible than over-engineered safeguards, uninstalled kill-switches, and failed failsafes.

“You live in Dallas?” said Ben. “So you can see your robots every year? Cool.”

“They’re not my robots.” He hadn’t designed the bots. He’d been just a glorified typist.

“My history paper was about the metaphor and symbolism. You know, in the order you gave your robots.”

Mendoza had made one small error that day in Yuma. He’d meant to send the order “Move west of First Robot Battalion” to the Second Robot Battalion. Unfortunately, he’d sent the message to the First, instead. The bots of the First had been trying to move west of themselves ever since.

Ben started tapping on his cell phone. “I’m texting my buds. They’ll be jealous that I got to meet you.” He glanced out the window. Outside, the bots were coming in clumps of three or four “The robots, they’re like, telling us something. You strive to get ahead, but you always end up coming home, right?”

Mendoza checked his watch. Twenty minutes until the all-clear sounded.

“You’re my hero, man,” said Ben.

Mendoza thought Ben was being sarcastic. “Look, I was just doing my job.” From outside came the sound of tinkling glass and a car alarm.

“Exactly. You and your robots. Just trying to make sense of the world. Doing your duty. Loyal, even though you’re just a cog in the machine. Semper fi, right?”

“Semper fi is for the Marines,” Mendoza corrected automatically. The bots were a symbol of loyalty?

“Follow your dream, man. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Final frontier. Never give up. Like Old Faithful?”

Mendoza smiled and scratched Patton under the chin. People saw him as Old Faithful? He could live with that.

Ben stood and walked to the window. “I started in South Carolina. It’s my first Running, but I was trying to get all the way to the Pacific. I guess that’s not happening.”

From outside came a loud clang. Probably Mrs. Grommer’s garbage cans; she’d left them out again.

“I think your bike will fit in the back of my truck,” said Mendoza. “We can follow the bots for a while. Maybe all the way to San Diego. Patton’s never been to the beach.”