Escape Pod 561: The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie
The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie
By A. Merc Rustad
The world explodes.
Unit EX-702 comes back online when UV wavelengths activate its solar plating. Its optics are crusted with red dust; a low-powered system scan concludes that though its left arm is missing and there is excessive oxidation damage along its chassis and helmet, as well as a web spun from several arachnids (Nephila clavipes) now embedded in its servo stump, EX-702 is functional. Its operational protocols are intact.
This unit is programmed for the support of life and sapience.
Its databanks are semi-corrupted beyond basic functions and archived footage and base knowledge dumps. Attempts to access the ‘Net and reboot from a mobile hub fail with a repeated NO CONNECTION AVAILABLE alert. EX-702 lifts its remaining arm and scrapes dust away from its optics.
Operational Function 413: this unit will maintain self-preservation operations, including but not limited to the access of immediately available data to determine procedure, when it does not conflict with the preservation of homo sapiens’ survival.
EX-702 sits in the crater of what had been Newtonian Genetech Incorporated laboratories and HQ facility. Debris from the lab cakes the thick concrete and rusted iron walls. Its scanner matrix glitches with static-filled readouts and partially deteriorated unprocessed updates from microseconds before it was shut down.
Scientist voices agitated and unmodulated without appropriate safety masks. [STATIC] “—find survivors! Protect yourself!” [SHUT DOWN]
Something crackles against EX-702’s knee joints. Fibers, synthetic and organic—old HAZMAT suits shredded and woven around broken plywood and stripped copper wiring—shaped in a non-geometric design. Inside the structure sit three maroon and heather-brown eggs thirteen centimeters in length and six in diameter.
The eggs do not match any current avian, insectoid, reptilian, mammalian, or amphibian entries in its database. EX-702 examines the nest, which has intersected its knees. A ripped arm from the hazmat suit is tucked between its clawed toes. EX-702 is a humanoid bipedal digitigrade design with backward jointed knees and toe digits designed to grip uneven surfaces and manipulate hostile terrain. Its hand is fully articulated to mimic the human opposable thumb and fingers. EX-702 is not designed to be a nest for unknown biological organisms.
One of the eggs twitches and a small chirrup escapes the cracked calcium carbonate structure.
EX-702 reaches to remove the nest from its legs when the egg splinters and a membrane-covered nose pokes out.
The other eggs crackle. Tiny claws, pointed snouts, wet feathers in muted brown and scarlet emerge. As the organisms free themselves, EX-702 scans them again and this time finds pictorial references in its database: Deinonychus antirrhopus. An extinct species of dinosaur whose fossil record suggested it would grow up to three-point-four meters as a mature adult.
There are no data points to conclude how the Deinonychus antirrhopus has populated once more. Newtonian Genetech Incorporated specialized in advanced human and cybernetic enhancement, for which EX-702 was a research assistant android and personal defense unit for Doctor Urashami.
The newborn trio of deinonychuses chirp and growl. EX-702 scans them. They require protein intake. A parental unit must be in the vicinity.
With UV wavelengths recharging its internal power supply and emergency batteries, EX-702 scans the area once more.
Four meters away, an adult female Deinonychus antirrhopus lies prone in congealing blood. Behind it sprawls the corpse of a dire wolf (Canis dirus). Both specimens are mauled and exhibit defensive and offensive wounds. EX-702 extrapolates that the wolf attempted to raid the nest and the female deinonychus protected her brood.
Her eyes glimmer and EX-702 stares back.
The female deinonychus growls. A staccato sound not unlike vibrating steel chords in a guitar. EX-702 does not have reference files to decode the linguistic message, but its emotive processors still work. There is desperation in the dying female’s speech.
The adult deinonychus shivers and goes still. Her heat signature begins to degenerate.
EX-702 looks down again at the hatchlings.
This unit will provide for the new life forms.
It is the custom of sapient species to identify members of a brood. Names were the most common method employed by Doctor Urashami, who christened EX-702. Doctor Urashami is the principal researcher in the cybernetic AI advancement wing of Newtonian Genetech Incorporated, and she built EX-702 herself; she often nicknamed it Seven in conversation.
The newborn raptors peer intently at EX-702. It runs a search in Names: Mythological: Alphabetical. From the results, it picks three it has records of Doctor Urashami having used.
This unit names you Andromeda, this unit names you Anubis, this unit names you Atropos.
It touches a finger to each hatchling’s skull as it christens them. Its brood hisses in what EX-702 interprets as acceptance. It is now their parental unit.
It disentangles itself from the nest with precise care, its servos and wiring creaky with disuse, and accesses protocols for the processing of meat. There are two corpses available to feed its brood until it can explore the area more fully and maintain a steady supplement of nourishment for the tiny life forms in its charge.
EX-702 has no immediate data of the whereabouts or status of Doctor Urashami, so it makes a hierarchal protocol list: it will provide for its brood and it will find Doctor Urashami.
With its battery recharged, EX-702 gains access to a prime directive protocol installed by Doctor Urashami from a remote hub shortly before its initial shutdown.
Search for and assist any human survivors.
It does not find any survivors within a mile radius of the former lab. It will continue its search.
Within three months, EX-702 has established its territory of three-point-nine square acres of city ruin. The landscape has been overrun with flora formerly extinct for millions of years. Old skyscrapers are choked with huge vines and ferns. Doctor Urashami’s favorite cafe, The Creme de la Bean, is a garden of semitransparent flowers and the calcified skeletons of the humans.
When hunting for its brood—migration patterns of herbivore and omnivore species crossed at the edge of EX-702’s territory where a river once called the Mississippi, now three times its former size, cuts the city ruins in half—EX-702 discovered a military bunker filled with mummified human remains, a working diesel-powered generator, and a laptop with video records of the pinnacle extinction event.
Unidentified space debris penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere and began what one news report described as “spinning back the world’s biological clock.” Prehistoric fauna and flora overwhelmed the continental landmasses; bacterial and viral infections annihilated the human population. New species thought extinct emerged from rapid evolutionary synthesis.
The records did not give enough statistical analysis to fully account for the devastation of nonorganic structural architecture, but a Lieutenant Bela Strovherd recorded an entry that EX-702 chose to save to its hard drives.
“Whoever’s seeing this? Yeah, uh, welcome to the end of the world, I guess. Look, I know it’s too much to hope you’ll be able to find any of my family or friends and tell them…” She rubs a hand over her face, then laughs. Her voice cracks. “If you can see this, I have one request. Live. Rebuild. I think it’s just time for the human race to pass the torch to whoever comes next, you know? But it’d be nice if you could remember us. We accomplished a lot of shit, but we had some good moments. I dunno. I guess…I’d just like to know someone, somewhere out there remembers. Hopefully you do better. I wish you the best, okay? I really do. Everyone here thinks I’m nuts because I’m so ‘calm’”—fingers made into air quotes—“but really I’m fucking terrified. I just want to try and go out with dignity, with peace. Maybe, whoever you are, you’ll see this and think, ‘You know, she’s not so bad.’ And maybe you’ll remember my face for a little while, and my voice, and my name. It’s Bela, by the way. Actually named for that actor who played Dracula ages ago.” A shaky smile. The camera wobbles as the room around her shakes. “Look, I’m gonna go now. I don’t want you to have to see…whatever comes next.” She breathes in deep, smiles at the camera. “Live well, okay? Maybe we’ll see each other in another life.”
The video ends.
EX-702 is the last android, and androids, it has concluded, are not meant to exist in this world any longer. EX-702 does not know where it belongs now. So it watches the videos of Lieutenant Strovherd over again every night, to remember her as she asked.
Andromeda races through the Nest, her feathers brilliant red and gold. She’s the largest of the three, sleek and agile, and she leads the hunting expeditions now with her sisters.
EX-702 refines the wrench head as it inserts the newly retrofitted arm into its shoulder socket. Anubis, the smallest of the brood, helps support the arm with her articulated hands.
Unit, Andromeda says, the affectionate term the raptors have called EX-702 since their birth. Look what we found!
The raptors speak in guttural clicks and growls. EX-702 has learned their natural language in addition to teaching them how to understand human dialects.
Atropos, whose feathers are umber and maroon like her mother’s, holds out a glistening egg the size of her skull that is wrapped in heavy leather scraps. It fell from the sky in fire, it was covered in ash.
EX-702 scans the egg, and its heat signature exceeds one hundred Fahrenheit. It does not appear to be of a species we have encountered.
Andromeda clicks her sickle-claws against the cement, her neck ruff bristling in excitement. I heard it, Unit, she says, I heard it burning.
Can I see? Anubis asks.
EX-702 tightens its new arm into place and nods.
The three raptors examine the new egg, their heads flicking side to side in staccato movements. It is moments like this EX-702 thinks of Doctor Urashami’s jittery hands and how she would always gesture when she talked.
Put it in the incubator, EX-702 says. We will monitor it.
As it watches its daughters carefully lay the egg in one of the generator-powered incubators and hover with fascination around the tank, EX-702 experiences what Doctor Urashami related as pride: it has raised Andromeda, Anubis, and Atropos into mature, successful adults. All three can hunt and build and tinker with machinery scavenged from around the city. Anubis is building an exoskeleton for advanced exploration; Andromeda is collecting paper books and printed ceramic mugs with slogans and pictures; Atropos has begun the repair on the observatory telescope.
EX-702 has still not found Doctor Urashami.
The egg hatches into a phoenix, which Anubis names Arrow of Heaven.
REPLAY: [Lieutenant Bela Strovherd] Live well, okay? Maybe we’ll see each other in another life.
PROTOCOL: This unit is programmed for the support of human life.
REPLAY: [Doctor Urashami] Hello, EX-702. Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life! Ha, always wanted to say that to someone. I’m Renee Urashami, professor of advanced robotics. Do you know why you’re online? I made you to help us make the world a better place. Can’t wait to see what we can accomplish!
EX-702 finds a flash drive in Doctor Urashami’s apartment, now overgrown in moss and brilliant orange mushrooms that sing ethereal music to lure prey. EX-702 is immune to the auditory and cognitive hypnosis, but it has warned its daughters of the dangerous flora and they stay away from the mushroom sector.
On the drive is an audio file labeled FOR SEVEN.
EX-702 plugs it into its USB port and listens.
AUDIO FILE: [Doctor Urashami] Seven, I hope you find this. When I built you, I made sure you were constructed from the best materials on the planet. I wanted you to survive. But I’ve been thinking. I don’t know if you made it out of the lab. I wasn’t there when the explosion happened. I saw it on the news before we lost all signal. I can’t get there in time to manually do this, but I realized that I made a mistake. I never gave you a way out. What if you’re the only thing that survives? You were built to understand and develop empathy, emotional simulation. You need other people around to function, like any of us do. I have this horrifying image of you wandering a wasteland that was once Earth and finding no one, wandering until even your power cells deplete and you are alone with no understanding why. So if you find this, and there are no humans left alive, I am initiating voice-activated protocol 815: Unit EX-702 will shut down within one day of downloading this program if it has not identified human sentient life within that time frame. I do this for you, Seven. You don’t deserve to be alone. I hope you forgive me. [END FILE]
[PROGRAM 815_endprocedure downloaded. Installing. Installation complete. Countdown: 23:59:59.]
Unit, what’s wrong? Atropos asks.
EX-702 stands by the observatory dome, a cracked sliver of dusty glass and steel, and the newly refurbished telescope within. Atropos swivels her head in curiosity.
This unit has been ordered by its creator to shut down.
[Time until shutdown: 15:25:49]
Atropos hisses and lays a clawed hand on EX-702’s shoulder. Why would she do that? You have done nothing wrong.
Doctor Urashami did not want this unit to be alone.
The doctor is a rusted socket wrench! Atropos swears. I do not like the humans I have seen records of.
EX-702 watches Arrow of Heaven trace fiery tails in the sky as she learns to fly higher and higher. Anubis will be watching from the ground, her flight-capable exoskeleton still in prototype design.
Some were good, EX-702 says. It thinks of Lieutenant Bela Strovherd.
What can we do, Unit?
It has already tried to alter the downloaded program, but it has been blocked by buried subroutines and other programs activated by Doctor Urashami’s virus.
Unknown. EX-702 looks at its daughter. But I do not want to shut down.
Andromeda, Anubis, Atropos, and Arrow of Heaven wait in a semicircle around EX-702 in the Nest. The incubators hum: some hold new eggs found without parental units attached; some house infant mammals—twin saber-toothed tiger cubs, a three-legged dire wolf, a newly hatched archaeopteryx, a two-day-old cave bear cub. All the incubators are assembled with appropriate heat lamps, milk tubes, or feeders, and are soundproofed with speakers inside issuing programmed voices of EX-702, the raptors, and ambient noise from the city.
Our family grows, EX-702 says. It wants to belong to this world, but it is still the only android. Perhaps Doctor Urashami’s virus is the correct procedure. This new Earth is designed for organic life. EX-702 is synthetic.
You can’t go away, snarls Anubis.
I will not forgive your human, says Atropos.
[Time until shutdown: 12:31:58]
EX-702 looks at each of its children in turn. This is their world now. They will build it as they see fit; they will remember and create new memories and prosper. It wishes it could see the future its daughters create.
Andromeda paces, her head lowered in thought. Play the message again, Unit.
EX-702 projects it from tinny speakers located under its faceplate. It has no articulated jaw or facial contours. Its helmet is indented with round optics and a flat polished plate where a mouth would be on a homo sapiens face.
All three deinonychuses listen with narrowed eyes. Then Anubis’s head snaps up and she bares her teeth.
Did you hear that? she asks her sisters.
Atropos hisses in agreement. Andromeda bobs her head.
Arrow of Heaven has never spoken, but she watches with interest. Her body heat helps power the incubators when she sleeps.
Arrogance should have been the doctor’s name, Atropos says. She only said “human.”
REPLAY: Unit EX-702 will shut down within one day of downloading this program if it has not identified human sentient life within that time frame.
If we rewrite the words in the code, Anubis says, her feathers puffing out, you will not shut down, Unit.
EX-702 plugs itself into the laptop console it built to help regulate the incubators in the Nest when it was not around. Anubis, the quickest and most adroit typist of the three raptors, begins hacking into the code and searching for the precise wording in Doctor Urashami’s program.
[Time until shutdown: 1:15:39]
EX-702 holds Atropos’s hand. It should write a goodbye, the way Doctor Urashami and Lieutenant Bela Strovherd did. But EX-702 does not have the right words. It does not want to say goodbye.
Andromeda sings softly, a lullaby she composed from all the words she has collected.
When sleep is far
And night is long
My sweetest song
I’ve followed you
Through winter snow
Through summer sun and evening dew
Remember when you go to sleep
I am beside you with teeth bared bright
I’ll guide you in your dreams so deep
And be there in the morning light.
[Time until shutdown: 0:45:12]
Arrow of Heaven trundles close, then pulls from beneath her glossy wing a sheet of copper, embossed with a drawing of EX-702 looking up at the night sky. The star constellations show all three raptors.
Lovely, EX-702 says. Arrow of Heaven ducks her beak in pleasure and purrs.
[INTRUDER DETECTION. ACCELERATION OF SHUTDOWN IMMINENT.]
No! Anubis cries. She tries to type faster.
Andromeda’s song falters. Atropos clutches EX-702’s hand tighter.
[Time until shutdown: 0:0:35]
EX-702 replays Lieutenant Bela Strovherd’s clip: Look, I’m gonna go now. I don’t want you to have to see…whatever comes next. But only in its own processor. If the last thing it sees is its family, the new world it has helped begin, then it will hold tight to that and remember even when its core goes dark.
Before the world exploded, EX-702 accompanied Doctor Urashami to a board meeting where she demonstrated EX-702’s behavioral and emotional intelligence parameters. “This is the future of our people,” she said. “No bias, no inefficiency. Pure, mechanical perfection.”
EX-702 experienced the satisfying effect of pride; it had excelled in its function and pleased Doctor Urashami.
“You want to give the world to robots?” asked one of the board members.
Doctor Urashami shook her head. “When we roll out the new models, and begin the tests on human uploads and upgrades, within ten years humans will have advanced beyond anything we thought possible a decade ago. We will have no need of robots, then. We will be superior in every way.”
EX-702’s elation defused. It must have incorrectly interpreted Doctor Urashami’s reaction to its presentation. It would run a diagnostic to find where its malfunction lay, if it as a unit was considered unnecessary.
“Good,” said another of the board members. “I don’t care for a future with that.”
EX-702 was not allowed to express emotion outside of the demonstration. What would become of it when homo sapiens no longer had any use for an android?
In darkness, EX-702 dreams. Or, perhaps, this is death. It hears Andromeda’s song like a distant echo.
EX-702 does not know what becomes of androids when they die. It hopes it will not be alone, whatever becomes of it.
It tries to keep the memory of its family bright in its processor—but the image de-pixelates, data deleted. First Andromeda, then the others disappear. Spaces where the visual should be fills with holes. EX-70 is helpless, its autonomous function superseded.
No, please let me keep this, EX-7 protests to the core-wipe program.
The shutdown does not acknowledge EX-.
The faint auditory input dissolves in static. When the memory of three deinonychuses disappears and the phoenix snuffs out, EX shudders. This, then, must be death.
The world ends.
EX-702 comes back online.
It lies in the middle of the nest, all four daughters curled next to it. Anubis blinks and stretches.
Unit! Atropos chitters, and headbutts EX-702 in the chassis the way she did as a hatchling to show her delight.
EX-702 sits up. Memory banks restore from backups, its last visual stitched together in its processor once more. You were successful, Anubis.
Barely! Anubis grins. But I reworded the program and omitted all uses of the word “human.” I also did a little more tweaking when you went into stasis and rebooted. I’ve disabled the majority of the blocks that prevented you from self-modification. You can do whatever you want now.
Are you all right? asks Andromeda.
Yes, says EX-702. It looks at its daughters and the incubators humming inside the Nest. Yes, I am all right.
EX-702 wraps its arms around its daughters and watches the sun rise over their world.
About the Author
Merc Fenn Wolfmoor
Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota and is a Nebula Awards finalist. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Nightmare, and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter or their website. They have a story forthcoming in Do Not Go Quietly and Unlocking the Magic, as well as several other anthologies out later in 2019.
About the Narrator
Summer Fletcher (they/them) has written for major and indie games, and narrated over 30 short stories for various fiction podcasts. More at summerfletcher.com