From the author: On an alien planet where firebirds threaten a colony, can robotic dinosaurs be enough of a deterrent to keep the beasts at bay?
The first thing we learned was that dogs were useless. At the first flickers of motion on the horizon, they barked, charging the perimeter of the habitat dome, but as soon as we got a firebird overhead, roaring, flames crackling along their eleven-meter wings? The dogs wet themselves and hid in the trailers. It’s worse than watching them react to fireworks or hot air balloons back on Earth.
The firebirds arrive when the silvershade trees bloom. An annual migration, which planetary surveyors had neglected to mention. What did they care? There was vegetation, animal life, moderate temperatures, and low levels of oxygen. They were halfway through the voyage to their next survey point when we landed here.
The firebird courtship rituals, the males sparring, wings ablaze? Beautiful. Enough to warm even my lonely heart, when I first arrived.
Then one of the males fell through our habitation dome, landing in an atmosphere richer in oxygen than his native one. Our atmosphere went howling out in a vortex past him. I grabbed for a breather first, a firehose second, working with Isatai and the others, trying to put out the fires. I was there when the chemical flames along the male’s wings leaped up in the presence of our enriched O2 environment. I saw his head tilt to examine his wings, and then he jumped atop the science trailer and started bellowing.
The females were impressed by his newfound inferno. Several approached. He mated with all of them, knocking over several trailers—so frenzied that he didn’t even notice that he was burning to death in our environment.
Until he did.
They’re pretty, but not bright. But other males had noticed the first male’s improved appeal inside our habitat and started seeking us out—no matter that they immolated mid-coitus.
We moved away; they found us again. So much for a zero-impact existence in our new environment.
Town meetings followed in the charred wake of that first mating season. Isatai proposed just shooting the beasts. “We can’t just keep moving,” he protested. “We have to stand our ground.”
Isatai. Half-Comanche by birth, he’d lived on a reservation up till the time came for the lottery that had brought his family to our seedship. Plucked out of Earth’s teeming billions to light the way for humanity to follow. We’d been married for a while, during the voyage. I’d been in love.
He’d been less so.
“We don’t need to kill them,” I suggested in the meeting. “All we really need to do is scare them off.”
“They don’t react to lights or sounds,” our newly-elected mayor objected, brushing her hair out of her face. “They only seem to respond to fire—which they try to mate with—or other beasts their same size.”
“So I’ll build something their size. Something they can’t help but respond to,” I said, shrugging. Not looking at Isatai.
“Kill enough of them, and they’ll learn a proper respect,” Isatai muttered.
“It’s not in our charter to go slaughtering the native wildlife,” the mayor answered. “All in favor of seeing what Kiriena can come up with say aye.”
The motion carried. Not unanimously, but unambiguously.
So I built dinosaurs. Oh, robotic ones—that’s my specialty area. I don’t have the biological background to try to reinvent the species from scratch. And most dinosaurs weren’t any brighter than the firebirds. With my luck, the real thing would’ve reacted the same as the dogs, and done a lot more damage to the trailers than just peeing themselves.
I spent months in my workshop building the first prototypes. I patterned them on T-Rexes, and named the first pair Anne and Dan, for an old children’s book I’d loved. Anne, being the ‘female’ of this robotic pair, bulked larger than Dan. She was the deterrent, while he was the scout, intended to patrol tirelessly during mating season.
I slept in the workshop beside them, seeing their silver skin in my dreams. The red of their eyes, staring into my own as their movements shifted from crude and puppet-like to sleek and predatory. I often stayed up till dawn, feverishly developing their AI. “You’re going to be magnificent,” I whispered in their auditory receptors. I liked to imagine that their red optics brightened at the sound of my voice. But that was surely my imagination.
Isatai visited my workshop. “We could just use guns,” he pointed out again. “Easier. Cheaper. This is a waste of your time and our limited resources.”
I’d firmly stayed on the opposite side of the settlement from him for months, and yet, here he was. It was almost as if he couldn’t resist seeking me out, just to argue.
The strange thing was, I couldn’t remember what we’d argued about on the ship. They’d all seemed like such useless, pointless confrontations. Meaningless words sliding past me, mere proxies for whatever the real issues had been. So I’d retreated back to the robotics bays to tend the tractor and construction bots we’d need on the new world. Running maintenance tests and getting machine oil under my fingernails. Silence was . . . easier.
Silence would be easier now, too, but sighing under Anne’s chassis, I replied, “I thought your people believed that animals shouldn’t be hunted except as food.”
Isatai snorted. “I’m on a different planet, and these creatures are a hazard. They knocked over the nursery trailer with my niece in it last time.”
That was true, and I loved little Naura with her shining dark eyes. She’d been born underway, and had been the first baby I’d ever held. For a while, I’d thought of her as my practice child, my preparation for the family Isatai and I would eventually have together. I’d played with her and made faces, and generally given her mother a welcome break from an infant’s ceaseless demands.
And then Isatai had asked for the divorce, and his sister hadn’t spoken to me since. Hadn’t asked me to look after Naura again. I hadn’t offered, either. It was . . . odd and uncomfortable. Anything to do with people tended to devolve in that direction, I’d found.
But none of that meant that I didn’t hate the thought of her fear and pain as the toddler had been tossed around inside the rolling trailer. Love didn’t turn off with a switch. Or with words on paper.
Isatai’s voice hardened now. “They disperse our atmosphere and threaten all of us.” He paused. “And like the birds of New Zealand, they’ve never seen a mammal. They need to be taught to keep away.” He gestured at Anne, who swiveled her head to track his gesture, sinuous and sleek. “Make them hunters, Kiriena.”
I stood, leaning against Anne’s side. “I’m not saying that you’re wrong. But the colony’s charter says ‘minimal impact to indigenous wildlife.’ I won’t make them hunters without a council vote.”
Isatai snorted. “Oh, like you weren’t unilateral by making robot dinosaurs to begin with?”
“The council asked me for this. Passive systems like motion-triggered lights and sirens had no effect. An active deterrent is the next logical step.” But there was more to it than that. I loved my creations, no matter their cost in resources. I wanted to see them succeed. Grow. Adapt. Become more than what they were today. Just like any other parent, I supposed.
As if sensing my defensiveness, Anne vocalized, crooning. A message flickered across my wrist device from her internal AI, primitive as it currently was: We defend what we love. We love what we protect.
Perhaps I’d put more of myself into them than I’d thought. My loneliness, my need for companionship? I’d spent more hours with them than with any human since landing here. Wrapping their command protocols in loyalty ligatures that were most akin to the feeling of love that humans possessed. To the dominance structures of a wolf pack.
I took them out to meet the rest of the settlers the next day. This served a number of needs simultaneously. It allowed the AIs embedded in the robotic frames to acquire data about those they were designed to protect—to make them more easily identifiable under multiple lighting conditions, and to ensure that every human here would be locked out of any aggressive targeting systems. And it allowed the humans to get comfortable with my creations. They were, after all, large, predatory-looking, and AI-controlled. Fear, once sparked, could spread faster than any fire.
The children loved Anne and Dan. I lurked at the side of the gathering, watching as Naura and the others climbed the silvery limbs. Slid down the dinosaur’s gleaming backs. I could have sworn that the tilt of Anne’s head, as she turned back to regard them with her red-gleaming optics, betrayed some kind of . . . amusement?
I’d designed them to be self-learning. To self-generate code, within the parameters of the loyalty ligatures, the pack-bonds I’d established between them and between us. Could they really learn more subtle feelings? I watched, fascinated, but remained at the sidelines. Where I could shut things down, should the dinosaurs get too rambunctious with the children.
“You should have made them aerial predators,” Isatai grumbled. I jumped; he’d appeared beside me like a shadow. “They can’t take to the sky to chase off the firebirds with their current frames.”
“Aerodynamics are a little beyond my capabilities,” I admitted, shrugging. “I normally design ground-bound systems, not airplanes or drones.” Though in the past, I’d worked on the AI algorithms for combat robots, too. I’d enjoyed the fascinating complexity of the programming problems, but I’d thrown up in a wash room the first time my employers showed me my robots in action in the field. Hence all the careful safeguards on my dinosaurs. “Look. People love them!” I couldn’t help the smile. But it faded as I turned towards Isatai, and realized the expression wasn’t returned.
He folded his arms across his chest, frowning as the children squealed and the parents looked on indulgently. Anne lowered her enormous head to the ground, and then slid her body back, for all the world looking like a dog executing a play-bow. Dan followed suit, seemingly submitting to the children as they excitedly climbed up the skull carapaces to pat just behind the enormous eye ridges. “So it’s a morale stunt?” he asked dourly.
I swallowed my irritation. Kept my voice steady and the tears at bay. I’d probably never know what I’d done to earn his scorn and contempt, but I wished that if he could do nothing else, that he’d just stay away from me.
Except if all our arguments in the past had been proxies for the real issues, perhaps this one was, too?
“I suppose we’ll all find out what they really are, when I test them in the field,” was all I could think to reply.
My dinosaurs remained the hit of the preschool set, standing guard in the crèche’s playground whenever I wasn’t working on them—like mobile play equipment that would also have cheerfully butchered anything that threatened one of the children. Even the dogs got used to their metallic odors and unexpected movements.
By the next mating season, my dinosaurs and I were ready, and when the first blips of migration showed up on the radar, Dan ran ahead of where I perched on Anne’s back, charging out to meet the advancing firebirds.
Dan vocalized a challenging howl when he spotted males dueling above a cliff, his challenge to them an echo of their own bellows. Anne crashed into the clearing behind him and I jumped down, wanting to observe, but not to get to close.
One male disengaged and landed, displaying his wings to make himself look larger. Definitely a reaction to these large, predatory-looking creations, where they tended to ignore our smaller vehicles.
As I watched, Anne and Dan circled. I could see the firebird’s confusion and fear building as they snapped threateningly at him. Saw his eyes drift past them, towards me—and then he lurched out of their loose ring, hopping over their heads with a couple of wingbeats. Heading straight for me. The weakest creature present.
Maybe I was wrong about them not being bright. Maybe we’d all severely miscalculated in terms of what they ignored, and why. I could only numbly hope that people watching the video feed from my shoulder-mounted camera would analyze all of this. Learn from our mistakes—
Talons extended, reaching for me, descending from above, just two feet above my head. A blaze of white-hot flame along the wings, sending a blisteringly hot wind against my upturned face—magnesium, my mind whispered blankly, they line their wings with magnesium for mating season—
My knees locked. I could only look up into its alien eyes, seeing my own death. A voice crackled on the radio, Isatai’s: “Run! God damn it, Kiriena, run!”
I couldn’t. I could program the most exquisite logic into my robots, the decision trees that governed fight or flight, but when faced with a physical threat, my faulty wetware defaulted to a different ancient mammalian tactic: hold still and hope the predator thinks you’re dead.
Anne, instead of bellowing and threatening, surged towards him. Her huge mouth closed on the firebird’s tail and she yanked. I saw him lurch backwards almost comically, his wings pumping. Gouts of hot wind poured over me. And then I could finally move, leaping out of the way of the two titans, feeling the impact as their bodies hit the earth. I keyed my wrist-device, trying to bring her back under my control—don’t hurt him, Anne, just deter. Trying to reinforce the command priority of a low-impact solution.
A message scrolled across my screen in reply, startling in its defiance: No. Defend what we love. Love what we protect.
And then they rolled the other way, fighting for every inch of ground. She managed to shift her grip, getting ahold of his throat now. Scrambling. Twisting. Turning. The silvershade trees shook at their impacts, showers of their blooms falling to the ground. Their bark glowing sullenly red in this low-oxygen environment, but not catching light. Not quite.
Then the second firebird descended, taking this opportunity to score a hit on his rival, clutched in Anne’s implacable jaws.
The impact of his attack sent both of them tumbling over the cliff. The male in the air bellowed triumphantly, and swooped off, flirting his wings at the females that had perched on other nearby cliffs.
I crawled to the edge, where Dan joined me. I stared down at the remains, tears trickling under my breather. I hadn’t meant to give them loyalty or devotion. I hadn’t meant to give them so much of myself. Or my love.
I hadn’t expected to have it returned in such fashion.
Beside me, Dan howled, a vocalization spontaneously generated from no code I’d ever written for him. A bereft sound, sliding through minor keys and blue notes. They’d gained in complexity, my dinosaurs. And with complexity comes the capacity for pain.
I staggered upright, leaning against him. “You’re not alone,” I whispered. “You’re not alone.”
The children cried when we dragged her body back to the settlement. “Is she dead?” Naura wailed, tears streaking down her face, just as they’d striped down my own.
“I can rebuild the body. Upload the most recent backup copy of her AI and whatever’s left in her original memory core, so that she can learn from the experience of falling over the cliff. Robots are . . . much easier than people.” I dropped down to put a hand on her shoulder. “You can fix whatever breaks in them. But humans . . . once something breaks in them, or between them? It tends to stay broken.”
Naura sniffled. “Can I help fix her?”
I smiled. “If your mom says so, sure.”
I suppose Isatai must have heard some of that. Because when Naura came to my workshop to “help fix” Ann—mostly by sorting broken components into recycling bins—he came with her. Stood there in silence, watching for a long time.
“You’re not broken,” he told me abruptly.
“I never thought I was,” I replied, puzzled, as I looked up from a mass of twisted metal and wire.
“Yeah. I know.” He gestured towards the robot, his expression frustrated. “That’s actually part of the problem. You’re not broken, but you also don’t . . .” He sighed. “You spend more time with machines than with people, Kiriena. Even on the voyage here, when there was no space for privacy, and we were all under each others feet? You isolated yourself in the machine bays.” His lips quirked. “No matter how bright my fire, you looked more at chunks of metal, than at me. You’re not broken. Neither am I. Just not . . . programmed right for each other, I guess.” He looked away. “I just . . . I couldn’t do anything, watching from the control room. I almost got to watch you die, from your own perspective.” His voice cracked. “I’ve got no right to ask you not to take those kind of risks again. But . . . you’re the only robotics specialist we have. If you die without training a replacement, you put the whole colony at risk.” He glanced back, briefly, and then looked away again. “And I don’t want to see you die, either. So could you maybe . . . think about what you mean to other people here? Before going out there again?”
It wasn’t a proxy argument. It wasn’t an argument at all. No raised voice. Just tired words, limping out into the air.
That . . . wasn’t the way I remembered things. I only remembered him shutting me out. Not that I’d. But I hadn’t, had I? I stared at the machines as he turned and walked out, leaving me alone with Naura and my creations. We protect what we love. We love what we protect.
Could he possibly still love me, in spite of everything? Did I still love him?
I set my tools down and followed him. Called after him, “Programming can be changed, you know.”
He stopped, but didn’t turn. “Maybe for robots. People are more difficult.”
At that echo of my own words, I swallowed. “Doesn’t mean that we can’t try.”
And the next time the mating flights circled overhead, the dinosaurs kept the firebirds at bay. And I didn’t watch the spectacle alone.
This story originally appeared in Liquid Imagination.