Dreaming Up Fairy Tales with Feral Bots



I’d put up such a stink that they actually sent people to escort me to the cryoship. Time to go, they said. My aging body no longer fit my profession. So claimed some nameless data-crunching hack on some far-off rock. As if they’d ever seen a nut or a bolt, let alone kept space station condensers purring for years past their expiration dates. 

Let the escorts wait. I moved slowly, playing up the old-timer label. Took my time folding the bed I’d made under the rumbling heart of the machinery. Soaked in my last moments with the rhythmic hums that had lulled me to sleep for as long as I could remember. 

They told me to leave the bed. My replacement would need it.

I woke on final approach to a fifth-rate planet. What was my reward for decades of shift work in the same station where my parents had been allowed to die with grease under their nails? A basic homestead, on the outskirts of a dusty settlement, baking under not one, but two apathetic suns. A settlement planted atop disturbingly inconsistent terrain that bumped and shifted, felt nothing like the metal floor of my birth. 

The town overflowed with empty quiet. Battered stone buildings stood apart from each other, sharing no engine, requiring no machines to maintain a breathable atmosphere. Orange sands rode the winds and coated the faces of strange people who spewed even stranger accents. 

I stopped visiting the town soon after I arrived, depending instead on delivery drones for the necessary supplies, ignoring the welcome messages in my inbox until they faded, leaving news bulletins unopened. The only thing I’d read was the Welcome Packet for New Settlers, I suppose because its format resembled a user manual. I missed those. 

Every night I dreamed of gleaming gray station halls. Of magnetic boots connecting with metal floors, of the vast cool darkness showing through station windows, speckled with suns that remained obligingly, comfortably distant. Every morning I shuffled across the stone floor to retrieve my coffee, not trusting where my foot might land if I raised it too high. I blinked at the boulders and hills outside my windows, shown too brightly in the harsh rise of the first red sun. My thoughts were pressed, squeezed uncomfortably with the urge to report for duty. To do something. I’d already disassembled and reassembled every appliance in my hab. Twice. Until there was nothing left to do, but venture out. 

Toward the town, or into the hills. My selection was obvious.

Armed with sunhat and cane, I hiked a little farther each day, occasionally spitting curses at a rock underfoot or the crushing heat of the suns, tackling the terrain as if it were a stubborn old engine. Eventually I was reaching distant cliffs with some regularity. 

Ambling along a cliff one day, I nearly toppled over the edge when Ainsley rolled out from behind a rock and smashed into my cane. Patched with mismatched alloys, its little body was surprisingly clean, considering it lived on a desert planet. Its eyes blinked at my knees, blue-green-blue. Tiny radars crowned its head like feathers. Its beak snapped, arms extruded and retracted repeatedly, as if it didn’t know what to do with the sight of me. That made two of us. Ainsley (unnamed, at that point, of course) whirred and clicked. Solar scales on its tail reflected both suns right into my eyes as it dashed away. 

So it all began.

Squinting against infernal brightness, I returned to that spot every day, trying to catch another glimpse of the little bot. Hour upon hour I spent on the edge of the cliff, sitting perfectly still, sometimes forgetting to breathe. On a good day, I’d hear whirs and clicks in the distance, approaching, until radar feathers peeked above nearby rocks. After a while it stopped running at the sight of me. 

Months passed before Ainsley let me follow it around. At a distance, of course. Seemed it was looking for metal. Electronics. So I took up the cause. The hell else did I have to do? I shelved my cane in favor of a metal detector ordered from town, and I joined in the search for parts. 

The rush of that first find was unexpected. And nice. I hadn’t seen anything with the naked eye, but the detector was spot on. Just inches under the dirt were a few wires, spare lights, solar panels. I admit I did a little dance before gathering it all up. That find changed everything.

All it took was one offering from me, and Ainsley started visiting our spot every day. Rolling fast across the terrain, it would skid to a halt at my feet, arms extruded to pick the pieces from my palm, eyes glowing purple, beak chirping fast, excited-like. Chirped at my knees for weeks, but I kept on talking from a meter-plus above its head, having no idea if it was equipped with mics of any sort. Finally one day it tilted back and looked, right at me, before skittering away, its treads looping funny zigzag prints in the ground. 

Seemed I had myself a job. Back-end dusty rock was nothing like a space station, yet there I was reporting for work again, every day.

My sleep eased. Images of metal walls and deep space faded, replaced by hopes of new discoveries underfoot, of antique tech peeking out from beneath the orange dirt, of the beep of a metal detector and the chirp of a feral bot. 

Until that day came when Ainsley didn’t show, and upon it piled another day. And another. I returned home again and again with little solar panels and other tiny parts still clinking in my pocket. 

Days stretched to weeks, until I was forced to venture into town. I asked around about feral bots.  Maybe there were more. Maybe they had a gathering place. All I got were blank stares, vague warnings, a hard copy of The Local History of Failed Settlements with “Chapter 9: The Bot Explosion” tagged, and more than one offer to sell me a weapon. 

I bought a tent instead. A little generator and a cooler. I headed out into the gritty wilderness, search-party of one. 

Took days to find Ainsley. Eerily still, it sat in a lair dug under a boulder, among piles of parts. Eyes blinking red. Barely even clicked when it saw me. I dragged it, limp, into the sunlight. Two days charging in direct sun, and it could only roll half a meter before its battery died again. That’s when I decided to take Ainsley home. And to break the law. 

Breaking the law really should have been a difficult choice for me, someone who’d never so much as wiggled a finger outside the lines of legality, despite how blurred and random they sometimes seemed.

Sneaking into town when I hoped everyone was asleep, handling a dim light and stifling grunts as my shoeless feet met more than a few sharp rocks, I picked the museum’s lock easily enough and searched the early settlement displays for batteries. Anything even close to Ainsley’s. I was creeping back out the door soon after, three batteries strapped to my back and a eureka chorus singing in my head, when the old alarm finally blared to life, and I took off running.

I nearly pissed myself when I reached the edge of town, I laughed so hard. First time I’d laughed in ages. No drones were on my back, probably no cameras in the museum. No one cared about the past enough to put in the effort. 

That’s when I named it. Ainsley. After my best friend in school. Only friend I remember, outside my parents. Only person who knew how to make me laugh. 

My insides flipped when the little bot named me right back. Three chirps and a buzz. That’s me.

Took Ainsley forever to try hooking up the new batteries. Kept losing juice after only a few moves. So I watched. Each time it powered down, I tried to finish whatever it had started.  The second battery worked, thank stars. 

Ainsley rolled away from my house the next day, fully powered, eyes brighter than ever, the other two batteries in its grip. I sweated more than usual until I saw it again the next morning, back in our spot. I offered the solar panels, still clinking in my pocket.  After that, it began following me. On my hunts.  Every time my detector sounded, the little thing hooted like a ship who’d just cleared an asteroid field.

Exploring a new area one day, we happened upon something different. And Ainsley knew what it was. It said nothing, not a hoot. Didn’t even come near. 

It was another bot. 

Only the second feral I’d ever seen, at that point, anyway. I’d realized I would probably, eventually, find more Ainsleys roaming around, of course. But this wasn’t like Ainsley. Not exactly. It was smashed. Beaten beyond recovery. 

Some settler must’ve done it. Probably with a drone instead of their own hands. Definitely with a head full of hate. Maybe fear. 

My gut twisted at the sight of the broken thing. Solar spikes on its head were cracked, some completely shattered. Roller legs were twisted in sick directions, flattened. Its eyes were dark, lifeless. Ainsley circled the bot a few times before rolling away, taking none of its parts. 

I dug a lair for Ainsley the next day, under my hab. And I began visiting town. 

Felt a little shifty the first time I passed the museum, but no one seemed to notice. People probably thought I was strange. Suppose they’d be right about that. But I thought, the hell, what else is there to do? I started talking. Who’da thought someone like me would be bopping around town like a social comet? 

Took less time than I expected to dig up some like-minded folks, folks who wanted to meet Ainsley, my little feral friend, and promote awareness. Forward the cause. They started coming over. 

First of every week we’d post messages, even print a few hard signs. We’d stay up all night, drinking spirits and shooting around each other’s respective stars, making plans to spread positive bot gossip, dreaming up fairy tales with feral bots and lonely settlers and happy endings. All while Ainsley rolled around our feet, tickling our knees, chirping and buzzing away, its tail knocking the legs of our chairs.

Stepping out of the house late one day, pleasantly groggy, ideas and spirits from the night before still hugging the edges of my mind, I called to Ainsley. It didn’t emerge from his lair. An odd emptiness hung in the hot afternoon air.  An absence of whirs and clicks froze me in place for too long, until adrenaline finally took hold and set me in motion.

Fishing my cane out of the closet, I fastened a camera to its end and craned it through the opening of the lair while hope and dread wrestled for control of my mind. Ainsley was there, thank stars. Working on something in speedy but delicate movements. Ainsley wasn’t alone. Crouching against the foundation of the house, I held the cane in one hand and the monitor in the other as my head swirled with the revelation of what unfolded before my eyes, until the ache of my arms and the protest of my back couldn’t be ignored.

I set a chair next to the opening of the lair and waited. Listened. Days passed. The whirs and clicks grew louder. Multiplied. Ainsley coaxed the first one out of the lair, and my eyes blurred wet at the sight of its creation. 

It was taller than Ainsley, its beak flat and short. Radars striped its neck, swiveling at a furious pace. Its two solar tails curled toward the sky, drinking in the sunlight. Its eyes blinked, blue-green-blue, as it regarded the world. As it regarded my knees.

Only one eye and half its radars remaining, Ainsley moved toward me clumsily and chirped. Its eyes blinked, purple-red, purple-red. Something was wonderful, and something was wrong. It returned to the lair, and I scrambled for my camera.

Ainsley hooted softly, cooed as it worked on the other bot, as if coaxing it into existence. I ran inside and smashed several household appliances. My hands shook as I dug through the wreckage, returning to the lair to drop parts into the opening, one by one, calling out to Ainsley each time. What did it need? I had no idea.

Days passed. Ainsley worked in the lair, periodically emerging to coo and nudge at its first creation, its one eye glowing solid green at its offspring, before returning to toil away at its second. I helped as much as I could above ground, talking to the new bot until it found my face, leading it around on walks. Offering encouragement as it navigated boulders and soft sands. Its radars went crazy whenever Ainsley appeared. It called to Ainsley, coo-buzz-coo

I woke in the chair during the second week to find the new bot tapping my knee. Coo-buzz-coo, it said. Coo-buzz-coo. Craning my camera, I saw Ainsley in the lair. Its eyes were dark, its center cut open. A thin wire stretched from Ainsley’s chest to the second bot that sat, very still, eyes blinking green. 

I ran for the shovel. 

Digging until my chest heaved, until I could fit my head and arms into the lair, I reached for the little one. Talked to it. Put my hands behind its back, gently pushed. The wire connecting the second little bot to Ainsley’s body snapped, and the bot rolled toward the sunlight. Toward me. 

It was half the height of its sibling, with Ainsley’s beak and the last of Ainsley’s radars circling the back of its head. Solar spikes spread down its back, a few still cracked. 

Its eyes shone purple when it met its sibling. They circled around each other and darted behind boulders. Buzzes and hoots filled the air, merged to form a single, happy melody. The bots bumped across the gravel and sped in circles under the warmth of the two suns, and I laughed until I cried, my tears falling to wet the parched ground.








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