by Maura Yzmore
“Do you ever think about what a fluke we are?” said Zia.
Sujay shrugged. “No. Not really.”
It was Zia’s and Sujay’s third week of babysitting the gateway during the graveyard shift. The lack of sleep had left Zia with deep purple circles around her eyes; Sujay teased her that she looked like a raccoon.
Five years ago, when the first tests on the gateway prototype proved successful and their team — one of the fifty in a global consortium — tapped into the multiverse, Zia was certain that the next few years would be exhilarating.
Today, the word she would choose is disheartening.
None of the alternative Earths discovered by the consortium so far had human civilizations with a level of technology similar to Zia’s world. The most advanced ones had usually scorched the planet in myopic waves of hatred or greed. The few that hadn’t self-destructed still didn’t talk to animals or live anywhere other than Earth. They also treated AIs as simple machines, not people of worth and valor…like Nuha. Nuha was an android, but so much more than a machine; Nuha was Zia’s whole heart.
Still, Zia was not surprised by the humans’ destructive urges; they almost ended her own world, more than once. What she hadn’t expected was how rare humans were to begin with, how few Earths had ever supported human life.
“Weird,” said Sujay. “Zia, come see this.”
“The daytime scans show high-intensity electromagnetic communications in the atmospheric low-absorption windows. These mostly die down at night.”
“OK, so we’ve got another Earth with some people and some technology.”
“That’s what I thought, but the nighttime infrared scans show there are very few mammals and they are all small.”
Zia rolled across the floor in her chair to look at Sujay’s screen.
“Weird indeed,” said Zia. “What do your long-range scans say? Are we just in the middle of nowhere?”
“Could be. I found no signs of human settlements around nearby bodies of water.”
“Did stupid humans annihilate one another again? Or maybe they abandoned Earth and you picked up their homing beacons?”
Zia rolled back to her station and stretched in her chair.
“I guess we’ll see when the drones come back.”
“About that,” Sujay looked sheepish. “The thing is…we’ve lost all contact with the drones.”
“I think they’ve been destroyed. I can’t see anything other than what I’m scanning directly from the gateway.”
“Dude,” Zia threw her hands up, “you should’ve led with that! You let me ramble about annihilation and beacons, when someone is clearly home and not happy we’ve stopped by.”
Sujay jumped out of his chair with excitement. “Nuha’s hailing! She’s back!”
Zia’s heart leapt at the news. After the loss of two dozen drones, six androids from the Special Forces — Nuha among them — had gone through the gateway. That was three weeks ago and Zia hadn’t slept since; the circles around her eyes had darkened to eggplant hue.
Zia alerted security and armed guards quickly converged at the gateway. “Bring her through, Sujay,” said Zia. “We’re ready.”
The first part to appear was Nuha’s open palm on her outstretched right arm.
“Everyone, hold your fire!” yelled Zia.
Nuha emerged from the gateway, looking dirty and tired, and gave Zia the faintest of smiles. Zia smiled back. For now, that would have to be enough.
Behind Nuha, holding her left hand, walked a bipedal reptile the size of a small human. Its skin reflected different colors when it moved, as if it were covered by a thin layer of oil.
“Nuha, what happened?” asked Sujay. “Are you OK? Who…what is this?”
“This is Troo,” said Nuha. “It’s…like me. A sauroid, I believe, would be the term.
“I survived long enough to recalibrate the interspecies translator,” said Nuha. “We should’ve customized it better for reptiles. Being able to talk to them is what saved me.”
Nuha emitted a string of high-pitched throaty sounds, like a large bird. The sauroid responded in kind.
“There are no humans there. Dinosaurs dominate,” Nuha continued. “Troo here has been modeled after the most common phenotype, a small dinosaur with a large brain, similar to our Troodon. So, you know…I call him Troo.”
“I bet their Earth was never hit by that meteor that wiped out all our dinosaurs!” Sujay jumped in. “Mammals were just emerging at the time. They never got a chance to take over Troo’s world.”
“That would agree with our nighttime scans: small mammals, few and far between,” added Zia. “Dinosaurs Troo’s size have low body temperatures at night.”
The sauroid pointed at Zia, then waved its hand in front of its face and said something. Nuha chuckled.
“Troo says that Zia looks like a small furry animal from his world,” said Nuha. “It’s the dark circles around the eyes.”
“A raccoon!” Sujay threw his head back in a hearty laugh. “The whole multiverse thinks Zia’s a raccoon!”
Zia smiled and rolled her eyes, feeling the tension dissipate for a moment. But the sauroid kept staring at her.
“Nuha,” Zia collected herself, “what about our drones? Other androids?”
“Gone.” Nuha’s jaw clenched. “They sent me back with Troo as a gesture of good faith… So we wouldn’t underestimate them.”
The words hung in the air.
Zia looked at the sauroid. It blinked with its clear third eyelid whenever it moved its head, just like a live reptile. The level of detail in its appearance was remarkable.
“We should close the gateway until we learn more,” said Zia.
She took a deep breath and entered the emergency shutdown codes into her wrist comms. As the gateway powered down, the room bathing in a cool blue glow, she could swear she saw Troo smirk.