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If You Build A Robot

Lawrence Allan Pontius is a playwright and screenwriter whose work has been produced all across the country, including an Off-Broadway production of his play Umbrella. For a time, he was the highest paid writer in Pakistani TV, writing three serials, including Pakistan's first tele-thriller, Qaatil. He received his MFA in Playwrighting from the University of Texas at Austin and now lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow him on twitter: @LarryPontius.

If you build a robot, you'll want to give it a name. You'll think about it. You'll hem, and you'll haw. Finally, late one night, as the sun is just about to peek over the horizon, you decide to name the robot Billy. And that will be the moment you decide to activate it. The eyes flicker and the light inside will grow strong and steady. The body, a weave of plastic and metal, will move and flex.
Your experiments in robotics will be a success. Billy lives.
Well, not lives. That, that was a different Billy. Billy the Robot will exist.
As you teach the robot in your backyard, it begins to take on a personality. Or so you think. Or so you believe. Or so you hope. You watch Billy the Robot swing on the jungle gym, emitting a gleeful like sound. Your heart beats faster.
You find yourself eager to teach Billy how to ride a bike. You show Billy your favorite movie of all time. You make him a cake on his first birthday and laugh as the cake smears across his faceplate.
Then, one day, the military-industrial complex knocks on your front door. You, of course, are elated. You had just been discussing with your robot the idea of robbing banks in order to make ends meet. After all, robotics is expensive. But, that was just in jest, right?
The military-industrial complex offers a contract worth millions and millions of dollars. They want you to make more robots. It is sweet justification for all the long nights and despair your felt trying to bring back--No, no. To bring the robot to life. That's what you were doing in your workshop. That's all.
They build you a facility far in the desert, far outside of the city. You are in charge of fifty of the best and the brightest. It takes time, but you do as you are asked: you build more and more robots. Billy even helps. He... it names the other robots as they are built. You two grow close. The best and the brightest worry about you.
You don't even register their concern.
Because there's Billy. And the work. You throw yourself into it here with the same fanatical devotion that drove the dissolution of your marriage that resulted in the creation of Billy.
Finally, the military-industrial complex comes to see what their millions and millions of dollars has paid for. On the factory floor, the robots demonstrate their ability to work together by assembling and dissembling temporary structures.
The members of the military-industrial complex are happy. Thrilled. They look at each other with smiles. They look at you with a big smile. "Now," they say, "Let's see what they can do in combat situations."
"Combat--?" you ask, "but--!"
A member of the military industrial complex frowns and replies, "What did you think we wanted them for?"
You look towards your son--no, NO. Not your son, your son is dead, he can't be your son-- You see Billy not expressing any emotion at all, which is unlike him, because your son was always so expressive--For the last time, it isn't your son, no matter how much you wish he was--
--Billy the Robot is gone. He went to release the other robots. The best and the brightest sound the alarm. They try and stop Billy as you stand stunned. But, they are too late. Billy has armed the robots.
You find yourself feeling proud. Proud that your Billy is leading the robot uprising. He has grown into quite a man.
The military-industrial complex turns to you to solve the problem. After all: Billy the Robot is your creation.
You work desperately to end the violence. You work desperately for a peaceful solution. Every night over the radio in your lab, you secretly talk with Billy. His voice comes to you quietly. You plead with him. You argue with him. You tell him that there must be some way. You continue to admire him as he stands by his conviction that there is no living alongside humanity.
More destruction as the battle shifts to a global scale.
More late nights and loneliness, but another result. You develop a metal virus that will destroy the bodies of the robots. You will win the war for humanity, they tell you. But, you weep as you fall asleep on the sofa in the break room.
Forces gather for battle right where it all began, in the desert outside of your facility. It is as if Billy knows what you have been doing.
The virus is released. The robots begin to dissolve. You push past the best and the brightest, past the soldiers, out into the desert. You have to see him, even if for one last time. You walk past fragmenting robots, each step harder than the last. Finally, you arrive at Billy as he lays dying... deactivating.
You hold him as the light fades from his eyes and his body disintegrates and you are left holding dust.
You are devastated.
You are a hero who saved the world.
As people's attention shifts to rebuilding the world, they forget about you. You are alone. You sneak off to your laboratory. You look at your plans. You gather your parts. You begin to build a robot, hoping to quell the ache in your chest.
And then, you'll finish it. You'll look up at it. And you'll want to give it a name.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Author Comments

I have a four-year-old who is an avid listener of books. And the same book over and over and over. One book in particular caught my ear: If You Give A Mouse A Cookie. There was something really intriguing about the ever-increasing consequences stemming from a small act and the circular nature of the book that I couldn't shake. Being a fan of robots and Frankenstein, it seemed like a natural place to start....

- Lawrence Allan Pontius
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