By Gray Winsler
Art by Eric Joyner
Published Issue 107, November 2022
What do you do with a million tons of war machines in peace time? That was the big question on everyone’s mind when I returned from overseas. The folks I knew in command wanted to bury them deep in some mountain next to our nuclear arsenal, keep ‘em on deck for the next war I guess. But roboticists were celebrities in those days, and their voice held more sway when the war ended. “Repurpose” became the mantra they chanted on talk shows, pushing the “RESC-U Act” (Repurpose Ex-Security Command Units). Everything’s a fucking acronym with the lapels.
The program was about as successful as any government program, plagued by petty politics and infighting. Most machines still ended up in the great garbage heaps that towered over central New Jersey, rivaling NYC’s sky scrapers (Jersey’s smell remained unchanged). Others were disassembled and repurposed in factories that sprawled the country, each lapel getting to claim their share of pork barrel parts for their constituencies. And then there were the war dogs like Buck.
I first met Buck on an op down in Southern Africa, a hot bed for proxy wars in those days. It was illegal to film them, but we all did anyway. We couldn’t believe how fast they were, tearing across the earth like some cartoon roadrunner, shredding enemy combatants to bits. I was always more of a traditionalist, thought we could get things done without the help of bots. But they were fucking badass, and we thanked God they were on our side. Buck himself got me out of a tight spot when I was cornered by a mech in an alleyway in Cape Town. Thought that might be the end of me, but Buck pinned it down and ripped out its innards like a dog with a squirrel.
The talking heads expected them to return as heroes. Developed by Boston Dynamics, the war dogs had turned the tide in our favor. The other side focused on those mechs, which at the time were little more than bipedal tanks — packed with enough explosives to wipe out your pen pal’s village, but slow as shit and essentially glorified drones controlled by a remote operator. War dogs were fast, autonomous and unpredictable. Give them a directive and they will execute, in ways even we couldn’t calculate. That pissed off folks in command, but it added an element of shock-and-awe to our strategy that scared the shit out of our enemies.
It also led to some events that are still being investigated as war crimes, so you can imagine how the gen pop felt about “repurposing” them. The thing about “heroes” is people prefer them at a distance, where they can’t see the the lines you had to cross. This was also a time when some people were still pushing “robot free” zones. No amount of Westworlds or iRobots could’ve prepared people for how fast bots became a part of our daily lives, and lots of folks wanted nothing to do with ‘em. Didn’t help that the media loved highlighting every goddamned incident involving a bot. If a human crashes a car, no one gives a shit. But if a self-driver does? Front-page news. Can’t say I was surprised though. People resist change, especially change that comes in the form of giant metal limbs they watched shred enemy combatants like that grinder in Fargo.
Despite the backlash, there was a determined group of lapels who came up with the idea of repurposing war dogs as companions for veterans like myself. It’s hard for people to be openly against that, even if they secretly don’t give two shits.
I can’t say I was too keen on Buck when he first arrived. My ma would’ve hated him, thought it unnatural. But it was that stubbornness that got her killed, refusing every treatment we had for her cancer. “If my body says it’s time to go, then it’s time to go,” she wrote. Maybe it’s just how I reckon with her loss, but you gotta be a real badass to stare down death in the face and not let it change you.
Buck had changed when he arrived, in appearance anyway. They’d painted him yellow, softened some of his features, added ears, removed the chainsaws. They wanted him to look domestic, like his kill count didn’t number in the thousands. I suppose they wanted the same of me.
They also programmed him to have much the same temperament as a cattle dog. The cattle were a touch uneasy at first. But it wasn’t long before they took to him just like any other dog, and Buck soon became my ranch hand — helping me move the cattle, carry their feed, charge the farm equipment and keep out predators. He seemed eager to do just about anything I asked of him, as long as it didn’t involve rabbits. Couldn’t tell you why, but those little guys scared the shit out of him. I laughed my ass off seeing him leap some twenty feet in the air at the sight of a furry white tail.
Luckily he didn’t have the same fear of big game. His code made him trainable in much the same way as a dog, and so I taught him how to hunt with me. The hardest part was finding ways to keep him quiet. Asking five thousand pounds of metal to be stealthy is like asking a wind chime to shut up in the middle of a hurricane. It wasn’t in his nature, but we made it work.
I can’t say I ever expected to grow affectionate toward a bot. But I came to realize after a couple years back on the ranch that there wasn’t damn near a second without Buck by my side. It was Buck’s metallic howl that would wake me up every day at dawn. It was his butt-wagging excitement that got me out for our walk around the ranch every morning. It was his boundless energy that kept me out for a game of fetch as the sun bled down into the mountains. He was my pal, and I realized I couldn’t imagine what life would be like without him.
And then there was the San Diego Zoo incident.
Most zoos started adding animal robotics in an attempt to draw in more crowds. It worked, and the war dogs were everyone’s favorite exhibit. They put on shows, programmed other bots to play fetch with ‘em. There was even a splash zone for the kids to get doused with fake slobber. People grew to love them and they forgot about the death machine it once was.
Until some nihilist wack job reminded the world. He hacked into the war dog at the San Diego Zoo and reset it back to one of its original directives. It was a fucking massacre, people ripped apart by the very thing they came to see. Over a thousand people died before they could broadcast its kill code. Photos leaked of a splash zone bathed in blood.
It wasn’t long after that I got a call from the lapel who’d assigned Buck to me a few years back. He told me there was an executive order being signed tomorrow. The war dog program was being discontinued. They were going to put Buck down.
I was pissed, livid. I called him a coward and hung up the phone. I looked to Buck who was looking back at me quizzically. He had no idea what was happening. Desperate, I started searching the web for any hacker I could find, anyone who might be able to help protect Buck from the broadcast. I started making calls, but people were too scared to fuck with government machines, at least the ones I could afford. No one wanted anything to do with protecting my Buck. I kept making calls until exhaustion overtook me.
I fell asleep against one of Buck’s ears, listening to the gentle hum of the parts that whirred inside him. But when I woke, the hum was gone. I looked at him, his body still and cold. I rubbed my hand over his nose as I’d done a hundred times, fighting the welling of tears in my eyes.
“I love you, pal,” I said, and prayed there was some part of him still alive to hear.
Gray Winsler is the first ginger to be published in Birdy Magazine, Issue 091. He loved living in Denver despite his allergy to the sun and is now based in Ithaca, NY. He spends his mornings with his dog Indy by his side, writing as much as possible before his 9-to-5. If you’re curious about Normal, IL or why TacoBell is bomb, you can find more on his site.