Plot Summary/Details

The central theme to this one is a variation on the old trope of a protagonist having to take on the role of a surrogate parent/guardian and teacher to a youth in need of survival skills or other knowledge. In this particular story, the would-be parent is a massive, sentient, robotic combat support platform.

The machine described as crab-like, or perhaps spider-like, using mechanical legs to move. It is also described as heavily armed. As is common with the central trope, the machine has both its own goal to achieve, and a complicating factor presenting an obstacle to that goal. The robot is the sole surviving "member" of a human combat platoon that was wiped out in the last conflict. The machine has tasked itself with the purpose of returning the dog tags of the fallen soldiers and seeing that they are remembered and honored. Unfortunately, the machine has been damaged from combat, and its systems are slowly beginning to fail. It has taken up position on a seaside beach in the story.

The machine is soon discovered by a young boy who lives by the beach. I think the boy is around 10-12 years old, and blond. The boy is both orphaned, and feral. Though the story doesn't explicitly state that the setting is a post-apocalyptic world, there are strong hints that the war has eroded civilization in many respects, and that the boy's family was probably a casualty of the war.

I'm fuzzy on how the machine first makes contact with the boy. I do remember that the boy stays with it, and the robot assumes the role of preparing him to carry out the task it cannot. It educates the boy, protects him as he sleeps under it, and IIRC, instills a sense of duty in the boy for the task.

The machine trains and protects the boy for many months, probably two or three years. As the story proceeds, the machine becomes weaker and weaker. As its power cells drain, it loses the ability to move, relies on solar energy to extend its life, and begins to corrode from the expose to salty sea air. It eventually shuts down completely, completely without power.

The story closes with the boy, now a teenager, and well-educated, taking the bundle of dog tags from the machine, and leaving the beach. He has taken up the task of returning the dog tags, carrying on the work of the machine.

Timeframe of Publication

I'd say this one came out no earlier than the 2000's. It may even be as recent as the 2010's. I read it in a mainstream sci-fi magazine, like Analog or the like (can't remember which one, unfortunately).

  • 6
    Nicely worded question. Ultimately all that work was unnecessary since I got it from the title, but ho-hum. A thing done well is its own reward...
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 0:35
  • 5
    @Valorum Good for you, but the detailed question will be helpful to people looking for the same story in the future.
    – user14111
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 3:43
  • 1
    It's definitely not the same story, but it put me in mind of "The Engine at Heartspring's Centre" by Robert Zelazny. If you've not yet read that, I strongly suggest tracking it down - it's beautiful and heartbreaking.
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 11:59
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    Different story but it also made me think of Descendant by Iain M. Banks from State of the Art in which a damaged environmental suit and its human owner interact on a long trek back to civilization.
    – micstr
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 15:03

1 Answer 1


Tideline by Elizabeth Bear.

The story follows a sentient war machine, Chalcedony, which is the lone survivor of a previous and highly apocalyptic war that has reduced the human population virtually to cavemen and hunter gatherers. As Chalcedony combs the beach looking for trinkets it can make into memorials for its fallen comrades, she develops a friendship with an orphaned boy.

Available to read online here.

  • 1
    Thanks for the link. Just read the story. Gave me chills. +1
    – Tushar Raj
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 10:54
  • 1
    Awesome. Almost cried at the end.
    – Make42
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 19:17

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