The autobus stopped at the border for gas, the driver giving us a quick warning not to wander too far as it keyed up the request for fuel. Fuelbots deployed from the station to plug the bus into the charging station. The station on the Oklahoma side of the border had been out of order, the driver explained. Even a robot could sound apologetic.
I stepped out to stretch. Dusty, flat earth sprawled in every direction, as though reluctant to exist under a beautiful, clear blue sky. We were in a far-flung western stretch of the state, between Oklahoma and New Mexico, well away from the ruins of the old central Texas metroplexes. Heat rolled in from the distance, like some weird, dry ocean.
“Christ,” Bill, one of the other passengers, muttered, shading his face and looking away. “It’s one of those fucking tourismbots.
Sure enough, rolling toward them on a plastic sphere encrusted with dust was a tourismbot. It had big, molded plastic hair and spindly arms that waved a little too enthusiastically. I was too slow to look away, and my fellow asshole passengers melted away as the robot pinned me against the side of the autobus.
“Welcome to Texas!” the tourismbot warbled through its aging, cracking audio port. How old was this thing? It thrust a hand into his and shook him vigorously. “Don’t we just have the best big state you ever did see!”
“State?” I asked. “You don’t get much news out here I guess.” I tried to pry my hand free, but the thing seemed desperate for human interaction and wouldn’t let go.
“Welcome to Texas!” it repeated. “Drive friendly! The Texas way!”
“Oh, hah. I actually, er, I actually don’t really drive…”
“Drive friendly! The Texas way!” It repeated. The grip tightened. I pulled on its hand, but the damn thing was intent.
“I usually take the train, you kno-OW!”
“Drive friendly! The Texas way!” The grip squeezed. Some sort of fluid started leaking from the ocular sensor ports. I looked around, and by this point the other passengers had stopped pretending to look at other things to stare at the tourismbot.
“Drive friendly! The Texas way!” The plastic wrapped around my hand started to buckle. Thankfully, I seemed to be stronger than it was. Still hurt like hell, though. The exosframe, once probably a really nice, clean white but was now faded and smudged with dirt and sand, folded up on itself to expose the thin endoskeleton beneath.
Bill sighed and walked up, putting a hand on the tourismbot’s shoulder. The round head swiveled to look at him, but it didn’t let up on its grip of my hand.
“Walkable,” Bill said. “Bicycle trail.”
“Drive friendly! The Texas way!” the robot’s voice seemed tinged with horror, but surely that was my imagination.
“Drive friendly! The Texas way! Drive friendly! The Texas way! Drive! Drive! Drive! Drive! Texas way!”
The tourismbot’s head began to spin as it kept screaming “Drive! Drive! Drive! Texas way!”
Bill leaned close and whispered, as if to a lover, “Agenda. Twenty-one.”
The grip suddenly was gone. The tourismbot flailed, its head spinning out of control. Smoke poured from the joints connecting the hairpiece to the robotic skull. The robot kept screeching a garbled version of its slogan as it rolled away toward the little shack at the side of the fueling station. I massaged my aching hand and nodded my thanks to Bill, who shrugged.
Our driver signaled, and we all began shuffling back into the nice, cool interior of the autobus.
“A reminder to passengers to keep your passports at the ready,” the driver spoke through the autobus speakers. “While there is no longer a standing government in this region, certain automated border defense stations may still require documentation to pass. With any luck, though, we should pass through to friendly territory with no further stops.”
The autobus hydraulics hissed, and we were on our way.