Caihong Juji

artwork © 2020 by Kosmic Arts

Caihong Juji

by D.A. Xiaolin Spires

I met Shi on Lala Online Meet&Chat. She outwitted me with her fast talk.  Her profile showed her long, black hair cascading over her shoulders and a wide smile, so different from my short, spiky hair and thin lips. Unlike many of the other cosmopolitan bachelorettes on Lala, she didn’t cake her face over with layers of makeup. In a lot of her photos, she wore jeans and permutations of dinosaur shirts. I thought she looked “counterculture” to my “unstylish,” and “down-to-earth” to my “aloof,” and was surprised when she pinged me.

Three months of messages and video chatting and she was pinging me again, flooding me with a series of emoticons: Christmas trees, presents, Santa Claus faces, and stegosauruses dressed up as elves. We promised to exchange couple gifts and she also sent me a box of apples last night on Christmas Eve, one of these new customs for the holiday, a play on words of Ping’an Ye (Christmas Eve) where the ping is homophonous to apple. I really felt like a couple, like we were really dating, not simply virtual dating. When I mentioned that, she laughed and assured me we were, as I long as I was okay with it.

I was.

Today, Christmas Day, she sent me another present.

SHI: C’mon, open it.

PENG: I can’t. I’m too nervous. My hands are shaking and sweating all at once.

SHI: Don’t make me come over and open it for you.

PENG: Could you, really?

SHI: Get on a plane right now from Shanghai to Hebei? I wish.

PENG: I’m pulling off the ribbon… Oh, wow, it’s a… bird!

SHI: Not a bird, it’s Caihong Juji.

PENG: The Rainbow Dinosaur…

SHI: Yes, and with moving parts.

PENG: Oh, very cool! I should’ve guessed. [T-Rex emoji]

PENG: [Sent “Photo of the opened bot-toy in my hand”]

PENG: It’s got a battery pack.

SHI: Flash batt-charge it, will you? I don’t think they prep it in the warehouse.

I flashed the FillRay at the battery and it fully charged in seconds. I stuck the battery in the compartment under Caihong’s clawed feet and it came to life. Its crimson, lime, yellow and azure blue quills shone in radiance as the LEDs switched on, accentuating the plumage that gave the creature its “rainbow” name. It moved pretty smoothly for a toy that size, flapping its wings and tail.

“It’s perfect,” I typed back. I felt my heart ache, thinking of Shi, choosing Caihong for me.

I felt a nudge at my fingers. The Caihong robot, flashing its emblem of colors, was trying to crawl towards my scrolling orb. I moved the dinosaur toy to the top of my head, where it started stomping, messing up my hair.

Shi knew that my parents named me Jingwei, the mythological bird that arose from a drowned daughter and dropped twigs into the sea. I thought that was a bit too tragic, and called myself Peng, for the fabulous creature that turned from fish to bird, even if it was a guy’s name. I thought it was a better upgrade, all about transformation and being reborn, jettisoning the seas for the skies.

SHI: You know, I always thought a Caihong was a better fit for you than Peng. Though, obviously you call yourself whatever you want and I respect that.

PENG: Why do you think Caihong’s better?

SHI: Well, the rainbow dinosaur iridescent feathers on its neck and chest. You always have a bit of garish flair to you.

PENG: I guess…? I hope that’s a good thing.

SHI: Don’t worry, I love it. All those tie-dyed bandanas?

I laughed.

SHI: Plus, she’s from Hebei.

PENG: She?

PENG: [Sent “Caihong climbing up my screen” video]

SHI: Caihong. Yeah, she’s totally into you, too. I can see it from the way she’s fussing with your hair, the way I’d do if I were there. She’s deep learning fast. Making all those connections in her black box.

I coaxed Shi to open my gift. 

SHI: An open ticket to Hebei.

PENG: It’s not very subtle.

SHI: I’d definitely visit. Once things start slowing down over here.

PENG: Do they ever slow down in Shanghai?

SHI: Well, maybe not, but I’ll make the time off, I promise…

We wished each other Merry Christmas, whispered sweet nothings. Shi texted a narrated account of a short striptease, which made me laugh, and we signed off.

That night the Lala app disappeared and with it, so did all her contact info that I never moved off the app.

It was like magic, one day Shi was there, an entity in my life, meaning in my existence, and the next, not. Shut down without a trace. Her profile, my own, along with five million other users—not to mention all our history. Poof.

I frantically searched for her. I even talked to Caihong Juji.

“Come on, Cai, did you at least grab a screenshot of her phone number or something?”

I couldn’t believe after all this time, I had not a scrap of info about Shi. The packaging of the box just showed the same P.O. Box address in Shanghai. That P.O. Box came up with nothing in the searches. It still bothered me that I didn’t save anything, but why would’ve I done that? We kept everything on their server, why would we even bother when it was so easily accessible?

I felt numb. Our lines were cut. Nothing, not even messaging history to reminisce with.

For days, I sat around before the New Year, calling off from work, dazed and dejected, watching Caihong learn on her own. I was supposed to help her. Teach her tricks and such. But, even watching her fetch a stick, that she had learned on her own, made me dejected. It reminded me of the name I left behind, Jingwei, relegated to tossing twigs into the sea.

On New Year’s Eve, Caihong walked into the room in her usual strut. I saw her mechanical legs leap from the windowsill and she would flap, flap, flap in wild movements until she tumbled onto the ground.

“Cai, you’re not meant to fly. You’re 161 million years old, with wings too rudimentary to work. Like your ancestral counterpart, your toy self isn’t made to get airborne.”

Cai bounced onto the floor again. She came over to my feet and nudged me with her paravian theropod snout, made of chrome. She bit my pants sleeve and tugged.

“What? What? I’m busy.” I continued to lie on the ground, staring at the ceiling. Something in my peripheral vision caught my eye. Her iridescent quills flashed in alarming patterns of light, zipping through the ROYGBIV spectrum and back. This was urgent.

I’d never seen her do that before.

I got up and she hopped away, perching on her claws every few hops to make sure I was following.

She led me to a line for a bus. It was one of those commercial ones, heading a bit further than the regular city bus.

I asked one of the bus passengers where we were heading, before paying the fare. Cai crawled into my bandana, camouflaging with the tie-dye.

“Why, the special exhibition at dinosaur egg museum of course,” said the old lady, giving me a strange look of surprise.

The landscape unfolded before us in the expanse of the mountainside. It did remind me a bit of Jurassic Park, Shi’s favorite movie.

I thought of her and I wanted to crawl back into bed. Did she even try to get in touch with me?

Cai hopped excitedly on my collarbone under my bandana. I shushed her. They led us into the craggy facility and down winding steps that led us to a dark room, lit only dimly in the center. It revealed a landscape like a giant chocolate bar spread out before me with oversized peanuts, ovoid forms trapped in petrified dirt.

“These dinosaur eggs are 80 million years old,” the tour guide said into the mic. The museumgoers oohed, stepping closer to the rail.

I didn’t know if the echo of that broadcasted voice bothered her, but Cai went into a frenzy, scratching me with her claws, until I loosened my bandana, cursing under my breath. She alighted, using her feathers to slow her fall and jumped into the pit. 

“No,” I yelled. She leaped onto eggs, just sitting there, as if trying to incubate them.

“Caihong?” A familiar voice made my heart thump. It was so soft I didn’t dare believe… did I imagine it?

The voice continued. “Wait, if Caihong’s here, then… that means… Peng? Are you here, Peng?”

I turned around. In the darkness of the building, I hadn’t seen her. But here she was. Shi. Wearing professional clothes, with her hair tied in a bun.

We embraced. I held onto her, smelling lilac.

“What are you doing here?”

“I applied to intern here. They were looking for someone in Hebei. I snatched the opportunity, worrying you would slip away from me. It was right after I got your ticket.”

“I couldn’t find you because of—”

“Yeah, the app went down. That’s why I had to come here. I had to find you. I searched day and night and couldn’t get a clue from you. I posted a lot of messages on forums, hoping to catch your eye.”

“I’ve been… not in the best of moods.” I smiled at her. “But it’s getting better.”

We leaned against the rail and Caihong must have decided to give up on incubation. She flew up towards where we stood above the artifacts.

“I can’t believe she can do that,” said Shi.

“Light up?”

“No, fly! It’s not in her specs.”

“Neither is combing the forums. Who knew she could hook up with the internet like that?”

Shi grinned, giving me a sly look, as if to say, Maybe I did.

Cai landed on my hand and nudged me, then Shi.

I put my hand over Shi’s, feeling her warmth and said, “Specs don’t define her.”

“Or me and you,” said Shi, her voice soft. “No matter what those standard dating algorithms say. We transcend our specs, our out-of-the-box state.”

Shi squeezed my hand as Cai took off again, leaving a ghost trail of bright hues.


© 2020 by D.A. Xiaolin Spires
1,700 words
March 27th, 2020


D.A. Xiaolin Spires steps into portals and reappears in sites such as Hawai’i, NY, various parts of Asia and elsewhere, with her keyboard appendage attached. Her work appears or is forthcoming in publications such as Clarkesworld, Analog, Nature, Terraform, Grievous Angel, Fireside, Galaxy’s Edge, StarShipSofa, Andromeda Spaceways (Year’s Best Issue), Diabolical Plots, Factor Four, Pantheon, Outlook Springs, ROBOT DINOSAURS, Mithila Review, LONTAR, Reckoning, Issues in Earth Science, Liminality, Star*Line, Polu Texni, Argot, Eye to the Telescope, Liquid Imagination, Gathering Storm Magazine, Little Blue Marble, Story Seed Vault, and anthologies of the strange and beautiful: Ride the Star Wind, Sharp and Sugar Tooth, Future Visions, Deep Signal, Battling in All Her Finery, and Broad Knowledge. She can be found on Twitter @spireswriter and on her website at daxiaolinspires.wordpress.com.


This story’s illustration is by Kosmic Arts!

The Tail of Genji

artwork © 2020 by Lars Weiler

The Tail of Genji

by Aidan Doyle

            It’s not easy to rent an apartment in Tokyo if you’re a giant robot lizard.

            “We don’t have anything that meets your needs,” the rental agents would say.

            Genji had similar luck when it came to getting a job. They tried contacting an organization that worked with the visually impaired. “I want to be a seeing-eye lizard.”

            “I’m sorry, but we don’t have any vacancies,” the woman explained.

            “I won’t destroy any major landmarks,” they pleaded. “I only want to help.”

            “I’m sorry,” the woman repeated.

            A train company in Wakayama had made a cat their station master, but none of the Tokyo train companies wanted anything to do with a giant robot lizard. Genji tried to get a job as a pusher—one of the attendants who try to get as many people into crowded trains as possible—but it was difficult to fight against the negative media stereotypes.

            They eventually found a job as a bouncer at a club in Roppongi. It was the last kind of work they wanted to do, but at least they only had to look threatening and didn’t need to hurt anyone. They could also sleep in the undercover parking lot during the day.

            Their creator sighed when Genji called to tell him about their new job. “Come home, Genji. There’s always work here.”

            Their creator owned a hotel in Okinawa. Genji wanted to make their creator proud, but wanted to do it on their own terms. When Genji had moved to Tokyo they had an image of a machete engraved on their tail. They were going to cut their own path. “I’ll find another job,” Genji told their creator.

            After their afternoon nap, they would go walk for a walk across the Tokyo Gate Bridge and admire the view. Of course they didn’t want anyone to get hurt, but secretly part of them hoped someone would get in trouble so that Genji could rescue them.

            Genji’s presence on the bridge made people uncomfortable though. Eventually one of the security staff told them to leave. “If I see you here again, I’ll call in a terrorism alert.”

            Genji slunk away.

            To expand their social network, Genji signed up for tea ceremony classes, but was asked to leave after their tail knocked over other students’ teapots.

            They tried not to let their lack of success get them down. Once people got to know them, they would see Genji for the caring mechalizard they really were. They continued to go for walks near the Tokyo Gate Bridge, but stayed off the bridge itself.

            One afternoon, they encountered a crying man near the bridge. “Is everything all right?” Genji asked.

            The man stared up at him. “Maybe you can help me.”

            Genji’s central processing unit leaped in excitement. This was their chance. “Of course.”

            “I was posing a teddy bear for a photo and it fell over the side of the bridge and got stuck in the railing. Could you climb down and get it?”

            Genji stared at the bridge. What if they called in a terrorism alert and the self-defence force arrived? It wasn’t worth risking their life for a toy. “I’m not allowed on the bridge.”

            “I own a teddy bear travel agency,” the man explained. “People from all over the world send me their stuffed animals and I photograph them enjoying the sights of Tokyo. My client would be devastated if I lost her bear.”

            Genji didn’t want anyone to be devastated. Maybe the security guard who had warned them to stay away wouldn’t be working today. “I’ll help you.”

            Genji followed the man onto the bridge, nervously watching for the presence of security staff.

            A man in uniform stepped forward.

            Genji was ready to turn and flee, but the man intervened. “This robot lizard is with me,” he announced.

            The security guard scowled, but didn’t say anything.

            “I come here a lot,” the man explained. He showed Genji where the bear had fallen.

            Genji peered over the edge. Even for them, it looked a long drop to the water. They took a moment to allocate more memory to their Calm and Tranquility Unit. They could do this.

            They clambered over the railing. Someone shouted out, but Genji kept going. Hopefully, no one had reported a terrorist incident.

            They used their claws and tail to keep a tight grip and worked their way down the side of the bridge. Their terror buffer was near maximum capacity.

            They spotted a blue teddy bear caught in the railing. They wrapped their tail around a pylon and leaned forward to grasp the bear. They had it!

            They held the bear carefully, making sure not to damage it, and scrambled back over the safety barrier. They handed the bear to the man.

            He bowed repeatedly. “Thank you. Thank you.” 

            The security guard shouted at Genji for doing something so dangerous, but eventually let them go.

            The man thanked them again.

            “Would you would have any work for a giant robot lizard?” Genji asked.

            The man smiled. “Yes.”

            Genji had to allocate more memory to their Happiness Processor. 

            Genji spent the next week traveling around Tokyo accompanied by a dozen toy companions. They took an average of 542.4 photos a day. Giant robot lizard holding a bear in front of Tokyo Sky Tree. Giant robot lizard posing with a panda at Asakusa Shrine.

            They waited to see how the job turned out before telling their creator. The feedback from customers was unanimous. They wanted to see more of the giant robot lizard in their photos.

            “Playing with soft toys?” their creator scoffed when Genji called. “I wish you would do something more important.”

            “I want to read you an email we received yesterday from France,” Genji said.

            My eleven-year-old daughter loves anime so much. It’s her dream to visit Japan, but because of the cost of traveling with her illness, we haven’t been able to make it there yet. She wanted me to tell you how much the photos of her favorite bear enjoying Tokyo mean to her. She hopes she gets to meet Genji when she visits Japan. Thank you.

            Genji’s creator cleared his throat. “I’m proud of you, Genji.”


© 2020 by Aidan Doyle
1,100 words
March 20th, 2020


Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and editor. He is the co-editor of the World Fantasy Award-nominated Sword and Sonnet and the author of The Writer’s Book of Doubt. His short stories have been published in places like Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Fireside. He has visited more than 100 countries and his experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia, and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea.
Twitter: @aidan_doyle


Illustration by Lars Weiler.

A Dinosaur Without Feathers Is No Dinosaur at All

artwork © 2020 by Rekka Jay

A Dinosaur Without Feathers Is No Dinosaur at All

by Izzy Wasserstein

The Mei long was nearly complete before Grace worked up the nerve to ask Samantha about the feathers. Grace had started on the dinosaur after she’d been diagnosed with the Canine Flu, and it had taken most of the loneliest year of her life, but now the gears and wires were in place, the casing all but finished. She had held off on the cortex, feeling that the tiny, wide-eyed dinosaur shouldn’t wake until it was complete. Dinosaurs had feathers. The Mei long had feathers. She had no choice but to talk to Samantha.

Samantha spent almost every afternoon either at home with her dogs (the thought made Grace’s chest tighten horribly) or in the school’s craft room. That day she’d chosen the latter, her long fingers deftly working the soldering iron. Students were supposed to be supervised while in the craft room, but no one hassled Samantha about it. She was 14, like Grace, and better with tools than the shop teacher, and Grace suspected that adults thought it best she be given her space. Grace sat down beside her and watched her work, sealing the ends off small, delicate tubes of metal.

Samantha unhurriedly finished the work, turned off the iron, and lifted her goggles.

 “What do you want?” she said. Not unkind, but flat.

“Hey, Samantha,” Grace said. “I’m working on a project, and I can’t finish it on my own.”

Samantha studied her face, and Grace forced herself not to look away. It has been a year since Samantha had transitioned, and Grace knew from the whispers and derisive words of their fellow students that most of them still refused to see Samantha as a girl. Grace had different problems.

  “Show me,” Samantha said at last.

  Grace carefully pulled Mei from her pack. She wasn’t heavy, but still heavier than the actual dinosaur would have been. Grace could only work with the materials she had.

  “Wow,” Samantha said. “This is…wow.”

   “She’s almost ready,” Grace said. “But she needs feathers.”

  Samantha blinked. “Feathers?”

“Yeah,” Grace said, defensive. “On the edges of her forelimbs, and down her spine. The Mei long was a feathered dinosaur, and it has to be right.”

   Samantha nodded. “I get that. Show me where they fit.”

Grace insisted on helping with the feathers. She didn’t like not being able to do it herself, and Samantha’s instructions helped fill the silences. Once those silences had been companionable, but the last year had transformed them. The girls clipped fine lengths of wire, cut the feathered shapes, soldered them together.

 “They need to be as light as possible,” Samantha said. “Heavy, clunky feathers would be all wrong.” Grace was so glad she understood. Together, they scoured junkyards and unattended construction sites for what they needed.

Within two weeks, they had the rough cuts of the feathers assembled. Each was a tiny, dull object, but Samantha assured Grace they’d look elegant when they were finished.

“This is so cool, Samantha,” Grace said, momentarily forgetting her embarrassment. “Thank you for making my dino dreams come true.”

Samantha smiled broadly, and Grace felt her cheeks flush.

Samantha’s text arrived a few days later: Can you come over tonight?

She hadn’t messaged Grace in almost a year, even though they’d once hung out almost every day, tearing apart old drones and reassembling them, expanding the massive fort in the woods behind Grace’s house, or scrawling elaborate scenes in chalk on the weed-infested basketball court nearby. The message made Grace’s heart race. Then she remembered.

 Can’t, she wrote. Dogs.

Oh, came the response. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I’ll come to you.

She arrived an hour later, lugging a suitcase full of supplies. Grace was waiting for her in the garage.

“I’m sorry,” Samantha said without preamble. “I didn’t know you’d caught it. And you and Rex…” She sniffled.

Grace didn’t think. She just hugged. The two girls stood there, crying in one another’s arms.

“You couldn’t have known,” Grace sniffled. “I couldn’t…couldn’t talk about it.”

People called it the Canine Flu, but that was a misnomer. The virus was asymptomatic in most people, but in some, like Grace, it manifested as an acute allergic reaction to dogs. A year ago, Grace had Rex, and been best friends with Samantha, and then she’d caught it. Rex was sent to a new home, and Grace lost her dog and her best friend.

“I should have told you,” Grace said, wiping at her eyes. “But I didn’t want to think–to think about not seeing your dogs again.”

“Let’s get your dinosaur working,” Samantha said, firmly.

She’d cut the details in the feathers, the notches and the fine lines that transformed them from blank strips of metal to something that was clearly a feather. Together they worked at shining each feather until it gleamed.

“Have you thought about its color?” Samantha asked, and when Grace shook her head she grinned. “I have some ideas.”

Mei darted through the undergrowth, happily pecking at the ground in search of grubs or small animals. She never managed to catch anything, which was just as well, since she had no digestive tract.

Her head darted up, dark eyes scanning back and forth, then she made a series of excited click-clicks with her jaws and darted up the forested hillside, a blur of gold and crimson, to meet Samantha.

Grace couldn’t keep up with an excited dinosaur, and by the time she was halfway up the hill, Samantha had already scooped Mei up into her arms.

“She adores you,” Grace said, trying to catch her breath. Mei stuck out her metal tongue and began licking Samantha’s cheek.

“She imprinted on the two faces that were there when we booted her up,” Samantha said.

“Her moms,” Grace said, and both girls blushed. Grace stared at her feet.

They walked in silence back down the hill to their old fort. Mei darted off to resume hunting, and they sat side-by-side against the corrugated wall.

“I’m glad we’re hanging out again,” Samantha said.

“Me too.”

“I…um…thought maybe you didn’t want to hang out. Once you learned I was a girl.”

Grace’s eyes widened. “No!” She shook her head fiercely. The dinosaur looked up, then returned to its scavenging. “It wasn’t that, Samantha.”

“Then…why?”

Grace thought she’d never stop blushing. “First I got the Canine Flu, and then,” she hesitated. “Then I was too shy to tell you… that I had a crush on you,” 

“Oh.” Samantha blinked repeatedly. “Oh!” A slow smile spread across her face. “I wish you’d said something sooner.” She leaned in and pressed her lips to Grace’s cheek. Now both girls were smiling and shifting their weight.

“Me too,” Grace said, sheepish, thinking of the last, lost year.

Samantha took her hand. “But then we wouldn’t have Mei.”

The small dinosaur ran around, clucking with interest, her metal feathers gleaming.


© 2020 by Izzy Wasserstein
1,200 words
March 27th, 2020


Izzy Wasserstein is a queer, trans writer of fiction and poetry. Her work has been widely published in places like ClarkesworldFireside, and Transcendent 4: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction. She believes in the power of hope and of community. You can find her work at izzywasserstein.com. She’s on Twitter at @izzyxen.


Rekka Jay is a graphic designer, illustrator, and writer from New England who is passionate about kindness and dinosaurs. She illustrates using traditional and digital mediums. She writes SFF under her pen name, R J Theodore. Her art and design work can be found at rekkajay.com. Her written works can be found at rjtheodore.com. She pings as @bittybittyzap on Instagram and Twitter.

The Dinosaur Graveyard

artwork by James Kurella

The Dinosaur Graveyard

by Aidan Moher

 

The bot’s heart was beyond repair. Frustrated, I tore it free of the chassis, wire filaments snapping like old guitar strings. The heart usually pulsed with crimson light, but was now dark. Dead. I dropped it into a bowl on my workbench with a metallic ting, almost drowned out by the drum of rain on the corrugated roof. The familiar ozone scent of shorted electronics mingled with the storm’s fresh earthiness.

I picked up the hadrosaur chassis with one hand. It was the size of a kitten, with small front limbs, a duck-like beak, and slick scales the colour of moss. I flicked on the power switch; the bot’s motor whirred to life, then, with a grinding whimper, stopped.

“Mama!” Earlier in the evening, Diti had burst into my workshop, cradling Ducky against her worn t-shirt. Angry tears cut paths down her cheeks.

“Can you fix her?” she choked out between sobs. My father had built Ducky before Diti had been born, but she’d been glued to the bot since before she could walk. Just like I’d been attached to Petri, my childhood ‘dactyl bot that had never flown. The modern bots in the park were more sophisticated, but there was a gentleness to my father’s early work, a touch of love and passion that gave them something none of the others had.

“What happened?” I asked, taking Ducky.

“Rishi threw it in the pond,” Diti sobbed. “Said it could swim, ’cause it’s a duckbill.” The older bot wasn’t waterproof, so its heart had shorted immediately. Rishi had thrown it earlier in the week, too. Couldn’t keep his hands to himself. He was smart, too smart for the park. Diti was drawn to kids like him, but Rishi teased her with the casual cruelty of unchallenged children. The same way his father had teased me when we were kids, growing up in the park.

Rishi might be a little shit, but his father was doing the best he could—the best he knew how. Just like the rest of us stuck on this dying, middle-of-nowhere rock. We were a makeshift raft, clinging to each other, praying we didn’t scuttle the ship.

So, now I sat—fingers numb, eyes foggy, slipping into numbness—in the low-burning light of a flickering incandescent, repairing a thousand-times-broken bot, and praying to whatever god would listen that this wouldn’t be the time she was beyond repair.

I glanced to the corner where Diti slept, quilt thrown aside, her breathing steady. It’s hard to believe a body so gentle in sleep could hold the rage and frustration I saw when she came home with Ducky. Clutched in the bot’s customary place was a usually-ignored giraffe plushie.

She’d cried herself to sleep while I worked at my bench, slowly disassembling my father’s work. His fingerprints covered it, from the fine-toothed gears to the elegant, computerized heart. This small bot, built by human hands, was never alive, but it had soul.

I needed a replacement heart. My father’s work was not interchangeable with the newer bots’ machine-pressed gears and AI cores. I quietly got up from my workbench. The door squeaked as it opened, as it always did. I glanced over my shoulder at Diti, and saw her watching me.

I thought to tell her to go back to sleep, but there was a look in her eyes, one that reminded me of my father’s intense gaze, and instead I said, “Diti. I need your help.”

For a moment she looked so old, I barely recognized my baby. But, as she clambered groggily from the makeshift bed, clothes askew, wisps of hair stuck to her forehead, her youthfulness returned. Sleepiness sloughed away, and a glimmer returned to her eye.

“We need to find one of Grampa’s old bots. Something small.”

Diti nodded.

The light from my workshop spilled forth, catching the glinting eye of a nearby T-Rex. Its massive form, slumped and non-responsive, was surrounded by the remains of hundreds of other dead and decommissioned dinosaurs.

Beyond that, shadows.

The drumming rain drowned out our footsteps as we picked a path through the broken bodies in search of the light switch. Diti bumped the carcass of a baby hadrosaur, and its loosely-held innards fell to the floor in a melodic cascade. It was one of my father’s, similar to Ducky, but built to proper scale. Diti looked at the detritus questioningly.

“We didn’t get to that one before the damp got inside,” I told her. “It’s mostly a write-off.”

“And too big,” Diti said, her voice hoarse.

I nudged the fallen pieces to the side with my foot and we carried on. The light switch was large enough to require both hands. The halogens came to life with an audible crack, their light flooding the warehouse, brighter than midday, revealing hundreds of dead bots.

We split up. My father’s smaller bots were rare nowadays, most long-scavenged or lost. I picked my way through heaped dinos. Their titanium bones glinted in the harsh light, a stark contrast to the pebbled skin of the older models, and the brilliant feathers of the modern bots. The park had relaunched a decade ago, trying to shed the image of dinosaurs popularized in the late twentieth century, and had been dying a slow death ever since. A postcard from Entropy.

“What about this one?” Diti called after a quarter hour of searching.

She was digging through an ancient pile that’d I’d written off as unsalvageable years ago. My heart skipped when she lifted a ‘dactyl, barely larger than her palms held together. It had a familiar broken wing and crumpled beak. Childhood memories came rushing back. My father’s tongue sticking out the side of his mouth as he worked on that ‘dactyl late at night, while I slept on the same bench as Diti had cried herself to sleep on.

“That’s Petri,” I said. “Grampa built him. God. I haven’t seen him in years. He used to come everywhere with me. I… thought he was gone.”

When I was maybe ten, not much older than Diti, my father had taken Petri from me. “You’re too old for this—this… toy,” he snarled. His eyes were bruised by lack of sleep, frustration. Anger. He’d smashed Petri against the wall, and burst into tears, fleeing the room. I never saw Petri again. The next day my father told me my apprenticeship was beginning. Neither of us mentioned the incident.

“Grampa built him? Can he fly?” Diti asked, turning Petri over in her hands, admiring the crimson feathers. She flicked him on, and the bot came to life.

“No,” I said. My father had never solved that puzzle.

“Can you use it to fix Ducky?”

“I—” I almost said no. My father’s final years were unkind to both of us, but Petri represented something else—a memory of more hopeful days. But the look on Diti’s face and the gentleness of her fingers as she examined the bot caught me off guard. I said yes past a lump of regret in my throat. “I think we can.”

Diti’s face didn’t show childhood wonder or playfulness, but a pure, deep curiosity. My father’s soul lived in his work, and I knew what he would say to Diti if he were in my place.

We turned off the halogens, returning the dinosaur graveyard to darkness. The workshop door creaked as it opened. “You should oil that,” Diti said. I nodded, mussing her hair.

Diti put Petri on my desk next to Ducky. She hesitated when I motioned for her to sit in my chair. “You’ll need those.” I pointed to a pair of kitchen tweezers.

Diti sat.

I turned Petri off, then spread his delicate pycnofiber fur to reveal a seam. “Open it here.” Diti used the tweezers to pull back synthetic skin, exposing the bot’s innards. “You see that small spheroid? That’s the heart. No. The one to the right, glowing red. Yep. That one there. Remove it. Gently.”

As I whispered a quiet goodbye to my childhood friend, Diti extracted the working heart with shaking fingers, pulling it free of wires that clung like spider silk.

I moved Petri out of the way, and put Ducky in his place. “It goes right here,” I said, pointing to the hollow in Ducky’s chassis.

Diti gently placed the new heart inside Ducky.

“Now what?” she said.

I described the next step, and with my father’s hand to guide us, we returned life to a broken, beloved friend.


© 2018 by Aidan Moher
1,400 words
August 24th, 2018


Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink, author of “Youngblood,” “On the Phone with Goblins,” and “The Penelope Qingdom,” and a regular contributor to Tor.com and the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog. He lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and kids, but you can most easily find him on Twitter (@adribbleofink) or his website (aidanmoher.com).

 


Illustration is by James Kurella! (This is a wood block print, designed and pulled by the artist and scanned in for digital upload.)

“I’m an oil painter living in Columbus Ohio, making my way in one of the brightest and most creative cities in the country. I’ve run a figure painting group that meets weekly where we paint, draw, and sculpt from a live model and discuss technique, style, and process. This has been an eye opening experience for me as it allows me to share my knowledge, learn from my fellow artists, and both give and get constructive feedback on the work. I also help run a group of Printmakers in Columbus that meets monthly to work, critique, and learn new techniques. I’ve been showing my work for the past 4 years, and have recently begun to explore watercolors. You can see more of my work at http://www.jameskurella.com, or on Twitter @jameskurella.”


Dinosaur scene break icons are by Kelsey Liggett!

Announcing new ROBOT DINOSAURS! story selections

RAWR! Thank you to all the wonderful authors who submitted stories to us during the open window! We had a total of 205 submissions during the open reading period; Editorsaurus Merc Rustad sent out 35 hold notices, and accepted 6 stories in total for the anthology. It was a joy to read all your awesomesaurus words. <3

Now that submissions have closed and final selections have been made, we are thrilled to share the final selections for the ebook/print version of ROBOT DINOSAURS!

ACCEPTANCES

  • D.A. Xiaolin Spires “Caihong Juji”
  • Izzy Wasserstein “A Dinosaur Without Feathers Is No Dinosaur at All”
  • Aidan Doyle “The Tail of Genji”
  • Micheal M. Jones “Regarding the Regretful Repercussions of Replicating Robot Reptiles”
  • Jennifer Lee Rossman “The Mistakes of the White-Coats”
  • Beth Cato “Friends Who Roar Together”

About the Authors

 

Aidan Doyle
Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and computer programmer. His short stories have been published in places such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Fireside. He has been shortlisted for the Aurealis, Ditmar, and XYZZY awards. He has visited more than 100 countries and his experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia, and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea.
Twitter: @aidan_doyle

Beth Cato
Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the new Blood of Earth Trilogy from Harper Voyager. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cats. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

D.A. Xiaolin Spires
D.A. Xiaolin Spires bridles and saddles her electronic dino before rushing to the grocery store. Besides ROBOT DINOSAURS, her work appears or is forthcoming in various publications such as ClarkesworldAnalogTerraformNature: Futures, Fireside, Grievous AngelReckoningGalaxy’s EdgeLONTARAndromeda Spaceways (selected for the Year’s Best issue), Mithila ReviewIssues in Earth Science, Factor Four, StarShipSofa, Liquid ImaginationStar*LineLiminalityEye to the TelescopeAtlas PoeticaOutlook SpringsGathering Storm Magazine, Little Blue Marble, Polu Texni and Story Seed Vault. Her fiction also appears in other anthologies of the strange and delightful, such as Deep Signal, Future VisionsSharp & Sugar ToothBroad KnowledgeBattling in All Her Finery and Ride the Star Wind. You can find her on her website: daxiaolinspires.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @spireswriter.

Izzy Wasserstein
Izzy Wasserstein is a writer of poetry and fiction. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming from Clarkesworld, Apex, and Fireside Magazine, among others. Her most recent poetry collection is When Creation Falls (Meadowlark Books, 2018). She shares a home with the writer Nora E. Derrington and a variety of fury companions. Reports that she is, in fact, a cyborg fox remain unconfirmed.
Twitter: @wasserst

Jennifer Lee Rossman
Jennifer Lee Rossman is an incurable dinosaur nerd. Jurassic Park has been her favorite movie since she was four, and she was that annoying child who complained to waiters about the scientific inaccuracies on the dinosaur placemats. Her debut novel, Jack Jetstark’s Intergalactic Freakshow, will be published by World Weaver Press in December. Alas, there are no dinosaurs in it.
Twitter: @JenLRossman

Michael M. Jones
Michael M. Jones lives in southwest Virginia with too many books, just enough cats, and a wife who prefers her mad science to be of the social varieties. His stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, such as Clockwork Phoenix 3, Utter Fabrication, and E is for Evil. Daphne and Camille first appeared in “Saturday Night Science,” in the first issue of Broadswords & Blasters. Michael also edited the anthologies Scheherazade’s Facade, and Schoolbooks & Sorcery. For more, visit him at www.michaelmjones.com.
Twitter: @oneminutemonkey

What now?

The rest of the online-scheduled fiction will be published as planned! We’ve commissioned artwork for all the new hatchling stories, and the plan is to send the ebook/print book of ROBOT DINOSAURS! to the printers by October 1st, 2018. This means you should be getting your claws on the finished product by December—just in time for gift-giving and curling up in a warm nest to read on the snowy days to come!

How about 2019?

Editor Merc Rustad has this to say:

“Yes, there will be a volume 2 of ROBOT DINOSAURS! Plans are in the works. This has just been so much fun, and I loved so many stories I saw in the slush—I couldn’t say yes to all of them right now, but let’s just say I have asked to hold on to several stories for next year’s season of robot dinosaur fiction! And yes, there will be another open submissions period early next year, and I will be soliciting more authors for the second volume. RAWR!”


 

When I Was Made

artwork by Jennifer Rossman

When I Was Made

by Kathryn Kania

 

When I was made they gave the ability to teach. This was difficult, from what I have heard. Not only did they have to code into me adaptation to different stimulus but the ability to teach what I had learned to smaller, clumsier, slower versions of me that didn’t think quite as well. They, after all, would not have a computer for a brain. They would be prone to impulses and emotions. I was not to have emotions, just something close.

I am a Pseudosaur in the model Oviraptor blue. I am specially made for zoos to give to orphaned clutches of eggs and be dismantled at the end of the growth cycle. There aren’t many like me; oviraptors are notoriously hard to keep in captivity, so my model is bespoke. The zoo that received me was able to pick and choose features they wanted.

The young ones around me are small, but they do learn quickly. I show them how to pick out the weaker lizards, to not stomp on the tail but the body. To eat quickly, lest their clever siblings steal the kill. I reward the ones that do manage to steal the kill as well. Hunting and learning takes all forms.

When I was made they also gave me the urge to nurture. This was close to love. I have looked it up. I am supposed to want to keep the little versions of me safe. To keep them fed, to keep them happy, to make sure they grow up smart and strong. I don’t know that I was supposed to develop the ability to care for them. To actually care, I mean. I was supposed to assess danger and keep them out of it. But was I supposed to learn how to observe them when they are sleeping? I’m not sure. I have not examined my code to find out.

But I have checked them while they sleep. I am solar powered. At night, I got into low power mode but I can still see, can still process. They sleep well, sometimes kicking. I wonder why they do that so I query. It is called dreaming. I wonder what my young ones dream of.

When I was made they gave me intelligence. I had to know what the little ones could eat; what they’d want to eat versus what they’d like to eat. I had to know how to teach them to play. Playing is good for their teeth, their hunting skills, and their social adaptation. Was I supposed to play with them? To let them catch me, nip at me, and stomp on my frame? Was I programmed to let out fake moans of distress when they did so and then get up suddenly to chase after them again? You’d have to ask the ones who made me.

The Oviraptor hatchlings are getting bigger, now. Their stomps actually dent my form. I have to be careful, quick. But they delight in this, letting out squeaks of enjoyment when I change directions suddenly. They are learning that I do not heal like them, and they are gentler with me now.

When I was made they gave me skin, scales, and feathers. It was proven that if I felt and looked like what an actual parent might, the young ones would take to me easier. They’d grow to care about me as I did them. They would develop the urge to follow me, to learn from me. It would be easier this way. I do think my creators might have underestimated the bond that would grow. Were the hatchlings supposed to nuzzle into that skin? To seek out comfort underneath me when it rained?

I am missing feathers now but they don’t seem to mind. It is too late for those who made me to turn off the love they have built for me. It is too late for me to not care for my own. My babies. My grown babies. They are as big as me now.

When I was made they gave me an expiration date. My little ones grow quickly. Maybe six months in total was all the time they needed to learn what I could teach. But that was all the time I needed, too. I do not want to leave my little ones alone. My purpose is over, my not-so-little ones know how to hunt. However, they also know how to protect.

The ones who made me have put a sign on the exhibit. It says that I am a Pseudosaur in the model Oviraptor blue. One of the humans will sometimes stand in front of our home and tell my story. They hold up their hand, minus a finger, and laugh about how they had tried to come dismantle me.

But I was made too well.


© 2018 by Kathryn Kania
800 words
August 17th, 2018


photo courtesy of Kathryn KaniaKathryn Kania is a writer and teen librarian living in New England with a partner and a cat. They enjoy swing dancing, food, and storytelling of all stripes. They once saw a T-rex strip on stage and it’s all been downhill from there. You can find them on twitter @KatyKania or on Goodreads.

 


The illustration is by Jennifer Lee Rossman!

Rexotron 3000, Private Eye

artwork by Rekka Jay

Rexotron 3000, Private Eye

 by Mina Li

 

Arden heard a car door slam and her heart thumped in her chest, but when she looked over her shoulder, the street was empty. This late at night, she was supposed to be tucked in bed and fast asleep. Instead, she stood in front of the big Rexotron 3000 statue on the park playground, his steel teeth gleaming under the street lamps in an ear-to-ear grin.

Maybe she’d get lucky and Mom and Dad would be too worried about her missing twin brother Simon to go check on her. Still, she wanted to get this done as soon as she could, because the autumn chill made her shiver through her thin jacket and pajamas.

Arden knelt, shrugging off her pink backpack and yanking the zipper open. If you wanted Rexotron’s help, you had to give him things that were super special to you, so Arden had thrown in her allowance, her favorite dinner, and a can of Coke. She hoped Mom would be okay with her taking two cans when she only could have one each day. In addition, she put a chocolate cupcake she’d saved from her birthday two days ago in front of Rexotron, along with a can of WD-40 from the garage

It was a lot, more than what the other kids gave Rexotron. But what Arden was asking for a lot, and as everyone knew, he always said, “What’s in it for me? Lubricant don’t come cheap, y’know!”

Rexotron was good at finding things for the right price, but what about a person? She’d heard Danny Walters gave Rexotron his lunch for finding his stolen bike, and it’d been a really good lunch, with chocolate chip cookies and a Capri Sun. She hoped what she had was enough to Rexotron to take the case.

Arden looked over her offerings for a few seconds. She hoped he’d like it—pork belly wasn’t Stego-Steak (Rexotron’s favorite!), but they didn’t sell Stegosaurus meat at the store. And she didn’t know where to get electron soda, so the Coke would have to do.

Arden put her hands together and bowed three times, just like she’d done with Mom when she visited her great-grandmother’s grave.

“Rexotron 3000, please bring Simon home,” she prayed. She sat back on her heels, holding in a breath, to see if Rexotron 3000 might tell her it was okay or if he’d make that “Okay!” sign with his claws, but she had to get back in bed before Mom or Dad checked on her. They didn’t need to have both her and Simon gone.

Later, when Arden had just begun to warm up under the covers, she heard a faint tp-tp-tp at her window. She rolled over, trying to shut the noise out so she could fall asleep. Maybe it was the crabapple tree tapping its branches in the nighttime breeze.

The tp-tp-tp soon became a tk!-tk!-tk!, followed by a whispered, “Hey, kid! Get outta bed already!”

Arden shot upright. That voice…it couldn’t be! She got out of bed and tiptoed to the window. Then she immediately jerked back, tripping over herself in shock over what she saw.

Right in front of the crabapple tree was Rexotron himself, all seven tons of him, neon blue eyes glowing in the darkness. His teeth looked even sharper than on TV, as if they could slice a building like butter, and his red Hawaiian shirt made him look like a giant circus tent.

“C’mon! We ain’t got all night!” yelled Rexotron.

Arden rushed to the window, pushing it open. “Shh! Mom and Dad are sleeping,” she whispered.

Rexotron’s claw landed against his mouth with a soft clang. “Sorry,” he said, lowering his voice. “Look, I got your message. Your brother’s gone?”

She could smell chocolate on his breath. “You got the food! Can you find him?” she asked hopefully. “He was supposed to come home with me from school yesterday, but he didn’t show up, and the police haven’t found anything—”

“All right, all right, I gotcha,” said Rexotron, laser eyes flashing red with impatience. “I’m the best private eye in Jurassic City. I’ve seen so many missing kid cases I could write a book about ‘em! Finding your brother’s gonna be a cinch.”

“Oh, thank you!” Arden’s eyes prickled with tears. “Thank you, thank you—”

“One thing, though.” Rexotron’s arm extended with a soft whirring sound, his claws encircling Arden in a gentle but secure grip. “I need you to help me.”

Arden yelped as he lifted her off the floor. “But Mom and Dad, they’re gonna find out! I can’t be gone too!”

“That’s why we need to hurry,” said Rexotron. “We gotta go now, and then we can have both you and your brother in bed before morning. Mom and Dad don’t have to know a thing.”

“I guess you’re right,” Arden said. The night breeze made her shiver as Rexotron pulled her out through the window. “Will it be safe?” she asked.

One of Rexotron’s eyes flicked off before switching back to his usual electric blue, his version of a wink. “’Course it will,” he said. “Clients are my number one priority! Hard to get these days.”

That was the line he always said on TV. It calmed Arden down a bit.

“Okay,” she whispered, holding onto Rexotron’s claws, “let’s go!”

The air around them charged for a brief second as Rexotron’s cloaking device switched on, covering them in a transparent shield. “There we go,” he said, and both of them were off, each stride at least two blocks long, faster than any car.

Hold on, Simon, Arden thought. We’re coming for you.


© 2018 by Mina Li
1,000 words
August 17th, 2018


Mina Li hails from the hinterlands known as Michigan, and remembers crying her eyes out while watching The Land Before Time in kindergarten when Littlefoot’s mom died. When she’s not thinking of stories to write, she likes to try out new recipes, knit everything from socks to blankets, and take long spring and summer walks in her neighborhood.


Rekka Jay is an American graphic designer, illustrator, and seamster who is passionate about wellness, books, and dinosaurs. She illustrates using traditional mediums, most often pen and marker, as well as digital. Each day she wakes at sunrise to write SFF under her pen name, R J Theodore. Her art and design work can be found at rekkajay.com. Her written portfolio can be found at rjtheodore.com. She pings as @bittybittyzap on Instagram and Twitter.

Sphexa, Start Dinosaur

artwork by Vincent Konrad

“Sphexa, Start Dinosaur”

by Nibedita Sen

 

Asha—Ash to friends—wedges the maintenance door open wide enough to slip into the darkened interior of the abandoned ride. Inside smells like rust and stale water and plastic fused with metal.

“Sphexa,” he says. “Light.”

The small robot bobbing behind him clicks, casting a circle of illumination on the concrete floor. He made Sphexa in shop class at school, patching together an old Echo, a frame salvaged from a drone, a rolling toy robot, and a few other things, because if you’re going to be that stereotype of the Indian kid good at engineering, you might as well lean all the way in.

“Reminder,” Sphexa says as they make their way down the narrow walkway lining the tunnel. “Event upcoming in two hours: Pick Mei up for prom.”

“I’m working on it, Sphexa.”

“Would you like a list of car rental agencies in the area that take last-minute bookings?” Disapproval is not something he programmed into the bot, but it’s definitely pulling some attitude right now.

“I’m good, Sphexa, thanks.”

They’re walking alongside a long, low channel that still holds a few inches of scummy water. The flat-bottomed boats that used to rock and splosh slowly along the artificial river are long gone, of course. Journey Through the Jurassic was shut down a year ago, eclipsed by other, showier rides in the park.

It was his and Mei’s favourite, before that. They rode it every hot, sticky summer, multiple times if they could, huddled together in the boats with their backpacks full of issues of National Geographic and Meccano dinosaurs they’d built together. Over the years, they went from staring awestruck at the animatronic saurians craning over them, to playing spot-the-anatomical-inaccuracies. Ash still remembers, though, that first time, when they were younger—though they’d ridden it so many times already by then—when they rounded the corner where the T-Rex lifted its metal head and roared in the low reddish light, and Mei grabbed his hand, their smaller, warmer fingers tightening in his.

Mei. His heart jolts, as it always does, at the thought of their heart-shaped face. The way their hair is always falling into their eyes when they get excited about something, and how they dash it away impatiently with the backs of their hands as they keep talking, their voice going high and jumpy with their infectious joy.

They had their first kiss on this ride too, in the back of a boat in middle school, somewhere just past the T-rex but before the raptors.

Ash clambers through a thicket of fake Jurassic ferns and a nest of baby Maiasura, led by Sphexa’s overhead beam. It’s hot in here. His rented tux is a little too small for him, uncomfortably tight against his chest, over the binder.

The corsage he got for Mei sits carefully in an inner pocket. He figured he should keep at least one thing traditional if he was going to flip double middle fingers at all the rest.

He’s almost all the way to the mouth of the exit when the irregular silhouette of a Stegosaurus rises ahead out of the gloom. Ash grins. Bingo. Stegosaurus, Mei’s second-favourite dinosaur (their first is Psittacosaurus, but Journey Through the Jurassic doesn’t have one).

“Sphexa, raise lights to seven.”

Ash carefully lowers his backpack to the now-brighter floor and start pulling things from it: pliers, loops of cable, wire cutters, microcontrollers; mostly from his own workshop, a few ‘borrowed’ from his dad’s. His hopes are confirmed as he starts carefully severing the plastic encasing the animatronic’s upper forward leg joint. The T-connectors and needle valves he needs are mostly already there, articulated and ready to go, if dusty from disuse since the ride shut down and the Stego stopped making its plodding way back to and from the waterhole.

All he has to do is feed wires into the right places, sealing them in places with dabs of insulated putty, winding them up towards the dinosaur’s knobby head.

“Message from Mei,” Sphexa reports archly. “It’s okay if you’ve changed your mind.

Mei had nearly cried with happiness when he’d asked them to prom, but had flip-flopped between anxiety and despair ever since, making lists of everything that could go wrong. They’d never exactly fit in, the two of them, the trans kid and the immigrant. Especially not since Mei had come out. Ash could guess what some of the stuff on Mei’s lists was: the glances in the hallway, the jackasses trying to flip up their skirt, being shoved at the water fountain. He got his fair share of it too. The Sphero that went into making Sphexa had been his before someone kicked it down the hallway, snapping it in half.

Sphexa, reply. Send link to playlist, ‘Cretaceous Rock.’”

“Message sent. Reply from Mei: ‘Hah, hah.’”

Sphexa hovers overhead as he works, the minutes ticking by. As he suspected, the Stego’s skull is mostly empty, its mechanics concentrated in the joints. Ash pulls himself up onto the dinosaur’s back, brushing cobwebs from between its raised plates—a staggered line of them, not paired, totally inaccurate for S. Ungulatus. At least it makes it easy to find a seat.

“Okay, Sphexa,” he says. “Get in there.”

Tablet in hand, he makes minute course corrections on the touchscreen as the robot levers itself into the hollow skull, clicking free of its drone frame. Ash leans forward to plug the final jacks into the ports on Sphexa’s back. Rotors click and valves piston as the connections light up one by one, a whirring hum he can feel through the automaton’s thick plastic hide. The Stegosaurus shifts, lifting one huge foot and then another, testing its restored—and expanded—mobility. Elation warms his chest.

“GPS active,” Sphexa says. “Add destination.”

“Mei’s place.”

“Would you like to add another stop? Suggestion based on calendar: school.”

“Not yet.” Ash pats the dinosaur’s neck. “Let’s go get Mei. Then we’ll see where they want to go.”

He twists his earbuds up into place, tucking them in firmly, and taps the tablet. “Oh, and Sphexa? Play ‘Walk the Dinosaur.’”


© 2018 by Nibedita Sen
August 3rd, 2018
1,000 words


Nibedita Sen is a 2015 graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She accumulated a number of English degrees of varying usefulness in India before deciding she wanted another in creative writing, and that she was going to move halfway across the world for it. These days, she does grad student things while consuming copious amounts of coffee and videogames, and making far too many lists. She enjoys the company of puns and potatoes, and her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Anathema, Nightmare and Fireside.


The illustration is by Vincent Konrad!

Robo-Liopleurodon!

artwork by Lars Weiler

Robo-Liopleurodon!

by Darcie Little Badger

 

My intern screamed. That’s rarely a good sign. Near the starboard rail, Abigail clutched a dripping, freshly towed plankton net. The collection vial dangling from the muslin funnel glinted in the sun, as if filled with silver particles.

“Doctor!” she shouted. “Nanobotplankton!”

“Are you sure?” I asked. “They aren’t garbage?”

“Look!”

The collection vial was the size and transparency of a jam jar. Abigail thrust it at me, as if handing off a grenade. I activated the magnification on my protective goggles and peered at the murky seawater. Metal specks sloshed side to side, dizzying; they were shaped like pill boxes and propelled by nanocarbon flagella.

“Alert the captain,” I said. “It’s bad news.”

I’d heard horror stories about swarms of bots large enough to track and disable cruise ships; they reported either to governments or pirates or supervillains, and we were in the open ocean, well beyond any continental jurisdiction.

Pirates or supervillains, then. What did they want from us? The vessel was equipped for research, and our most expensive cargo was a really good microscope. Would they demand hostages? I glanced at Abigail’s back; she was nineteen, brilliant, and had joined my lab with a fellowship for low-income students. She reminded me of myself, twenty years back when, driven by hope, I studied geosciences because the world was hurting, and somebody had to diagnose it so something could done.

Since then, I’ve made plenty of diagnoses. But so little has been done.

I wondered how long it would take Abigail to become jaded or—like many of my colleagues—leave the field. It’s hard to make a career in geosciences unless you love the earth. Even harder to study its death in the kind of detail that withstands peer review. How many reefs had I watched die? Islands drowned by the rising sea? Primordial species extinguished in the span of one human lifetime?

Frustration drove my own advisor to early retirement. I was her last pupil; she left the moment I graduated. “They won’t listen to us, Maria,” she said. “They won’t fund us. And that means we can’t help them.”

As I watched the water around our ship darken with swarming bots, I wondered: “Who will help us?”

In the distance, a silver back split the sea, but the vessel—an odd submarine?—dove before I could get a good look. One of the quick-thinking deckhands activated a distress drone. With an industrious whir, the tri-copter zipped over my head and attempted to escape the signal-blocking radius emitted by those damnable bots.

The ship’s emergency siren wailed, indicating that I should leave the deck and take shelter in my cabin. But I couldn’t turn away from the sea, which churned like boiling soup beneath the drone. Seconds later, a metal beast breached the water. Its great, crocodile-shaped mouth yawned open and snapped, crushing the drone mid-leap. Its four paddle-shaped flippers flapped, their surfaces sleek and their edges sharp as knives. When the whale-sized machine landed, the impact rocked our ship and sprayed my face with water that tasted of salt and metal.

“What is that?” a deckhand asked, dismayed.

“I … can’t believe this,” I said, “but it looks like a robo-Liopleurodon.”

The Liopleurodon head reared from the water, its jaws snapping, flourishing five-inch-long serrated teeth that could easily tear our hull to shreds. I took a step back, at once startled and fascinated. Its engineer had put exquisite care into the design, emulating the strength and form that once made the Liopleurodon the greatest carnivore in the Jurassic sea.

Far beyond the Liopleurodon, silver bobbed on the undulating sea. I zoomed in with my goggles and glimpsed a hatch protruding from a metal dome.

“Doctor!” Abigail said, tugging on my sleeve. “The captain wants us off the deck. Come with me! We can’t—”

“ATTENTION RV,” the Liopleurodon boomed. “SURRENDER ALL MICROSCOPES, CTDs, AND REAGENT GRADE CHEMICALS, OR WE WILL DISABLE YOUR SHIP.”

There was something familiar about that voice.

“Dr. Barbara?” I asked. “Dr. Barbara, is that you?” I threw myself against the railing and waved at the Liopleurodon’s glassy black eye. “Hey! Hey, it’s me! Maria! Can you hear me? Holy schist, this can’t be happening!”

The Liopleurodon’s mouth opened wider, as if gasping. “MARIA!?”

“Are you piloting that robot dinosaur?” I asked.

“ER. WELL. A ROBOT MARINE REPTILE.”

“And robbing us?”

“FOR THE GREATER GOOD.”

“Greater good?”

“EARTH AND SCIENCE.”

I’d been wrong. My advisor never gave up. Although I wasn’t sure that joining a team of rogue scientist pirates was much better. And it had to be a team. Dr. Barbara might be a brilliant chemical oceanographer, but she wasn’t a paleontologist or an engineer.

“YOU MUST THINK I’M TERRIBLE. JUST—ER—NEVER MIND. WE CAN FIND SUPPLIES ELSEWHERE. I HOPE YOUR RESEARCH IS FRUITFUL.”

The Liopleurodon began to sink. “Wait!” I said.

It hesitated, half its head submerged. “YES?”

“Have you really accomplished anything with this … this criminal behavior?”

“OF COURSE. JUST THIS YEAR, WE HAVE ELIMINATED ONE MILLION TONS OF MICROPLASTICS FROM THE NORTH PACIFIC GYRE AND SAVED A WHALE SPECIES FROM EXTINCTION.”

“You’ll be caught someday, Dr. Barbara,” I said.

“PERHAPS.”  The Liopleurodon winked. “TAKE CARE, MARIA.”

As our attackers vanished and the ocean cleared, Abigail asked, “Who was that?”

“Apparently, my graduate advisor.”

“Is she a supervillain, or something?”

“Or something,” I said. And I wondered if someday that something would be me.

Silver glinted against the horizon as the robo-Liopleurodon leapt one last time.


© 2018 by Darcie Little Badger
900 words
July 27th, 2018


Dr. Darcie Little Badger is a Lipan Apache scientist and writer. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple places, including Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time (Nicholson, ed.), Strange Horizons, The Dark, Mythic Delirium, Lightspeed (POC Destroy Fantasy), Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Cicada Magazine. Darcie’s debut comic, “Worst Bargain in Town,” was published in Moonshot: The Indigenous Comics Collection, Volume 2. She also has comics inRelational Constellation and Deer Woman: An Anthology by Native Realities.


The illustration is by Lars Weiler!