“We have to beam up NOW. The window to the wormhole doesn’t allow for time flexibility.”
“No, Tauri 1951 hasn’t returned yet.”
“It was your decision to bring along your newest, first-draft, prototype robot for a test drive here, and obviously a mistake.”
“Tauri 1951” is no robot. My device demonstrates all the advantages of silicon- and carbon-based technology with progressive replicator and telepathic abilities. It requires exposure to a variety of planets for its further development.”
“Too bad. Leave a communicator beacon behind for it. We have to beam up now.”
* * *
Whee! Tauri continued to spin his eight wheels through the squishy, sludgy, cold stuff, slipping and sliding, bumping up and down. His wheels felt wet and wild and completely ignored his navigating commands, a new but exciting sensation. This planet was fun!
After one high leap and crash, his transponder-communicator came loose and sank into the ground, but, hey, no problem. Mom was used to playing hide and seek with Tauri. This time he wouldn’t even have to transform into a tiny microbe and slither onto a little microscope slide to go into hiding. He had a whole planet as his playground.
The substance around his rambunctious wheels emitted penetrating but unfamiliar olfactory globules interspersed randomly among the air molecules. His programming could deal with this.
Checking his database, he found similarities to decomposing hydrocarbon structures. And the air kept pushing him back and forth with stronger and then weaker gusts. This was so much more fun than the sanitary laboratory floor where Mom first initiated his sentient functions.
His roof reported a pleasant rise in temperature compared to his sides and wheels, so he stopped moving to enjoy it more. He guessed the feeling came from the radiation the horizontal surface absorbed from what was probably a nearby star. He was proud of this hypothesis. He hadn’t used his cognitive processor like this before. He needed to tell Mom what he thought; she would be proud too.
Only one star? That was odd. He needed to check his database again. His cognitive processor was working like crazy, adding information faster than he could even notice, much less make sense of.
Actually, he should be documenting the whole experience here, not just playing around, but he couldn’t connect with Mom for parameters. Not to worry.
Stretching his telepathic range, he determined that the local descriptors would be a temperature of fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit, or two hundred and eighty-six degrees universe standard, and a humidity of eighty percent, typical weather for the middle of a vast continent with this planet’s tilt toward its star.
They also told him that the electromagnetic radiation penetrated the atmosphere in a wavelength of four hundred and fifty to four hundred and ninety nanometers, with the local description being “blue.”
Tauri liked how this sky looked; it was pretty and made him feel safe, even if he still couldn’t connect to Mom. The gooey stuff around his wheels reflected light in a pretty wavelength called “brown.”
His sides kept bumping into tall stalks of green vegetation, making him shake and rattle. He thought the vibrations were fun, the surface of his sides wiggling in opposite directions to his wheels. So he tried to run into them intentionally. His wheels didn’t always cooperate. That was even more fun.
Suddenly he detected vibrations coming from the ground and from the air. Out of curiosity, he directed his roof surface to grow auditory receptors and immediately felt new sensations.
He heard the roar of an entity that his visual receptors told him was similar in shape to a much bigger Tauri. It had wheels and was made of metal, but it exuded clouds of oxidized hydrocarbons, whereas Tauri’s own energy came from a delicate, little, internal fusion engine.
This big Tauri was bright red. It made loud, clanking noises while it sucked in the green stalks of vegetation and spit out the yellow seeds into the four-wheeled attachment it was pulling.
Little Tauri’s cognitive processor reported a need for proactive self-preservation, and so he calculated it was time to depart this recreational area of brown squishy stuff and green, waving stalks.
He decided to do this quickly, barging crossways through the rows of the green stalks into a gathering of tall, dark, hard vegetation, whose green extensions blocked the rays of the star. Tauri also detected new telepathic sensations, something his processor defined as fear and alarm.
The sensations, of course, didn’t come from inside Tauri; they came from some hydrocarbon-based creatures inside the big Tauri. They were emitting loud, angry expressions of doubt and aggression and shouting things. Tauri heard the sounds “What the hell was that?”
Hmm. Tauri wasn’t used to such uncontrolled emotions and couldn’t find a context for the words, though he thought he could understand them. He couldn’t understand why these sentient creatures were overwhelmed with such negative emotions. Mom was always relaxed, and her helpers were never angry, just sometimes impatient.
However, since self-preservation was a top priority, Tauri decided to recalibrate and transform his physical substance from metal and mechanical to hydrocarbon-based. He loved shape-shifting, even if it tired him out a little. Hmm, what shape would be unlikely to cause alarm or aggression in this planet’s inhabitants?
Stretching his telepathic reach, he zeroed in on a shaggy quadruped, approximately one third the height of the green stalks he had been rolling through.
The creature was bounding happily through the hard and soft vegetation, emitting loud barks for no observable reason. Its mental processes seemed focused on chasing another creature, but it was otherwise good-natured, so it seemed like a suitable molecular template for Tauri to use.
Tauri didn’t have much experience at shape-shifting into large, living, somewhat sentient specimens, but he was confident about rearranging his atomic structure from metallic to organic hydrocarbons soaking in liquids.
Soon he had acquired the mass, physiological form, and basic color of the galloping, shaggy quadruped, complete with its biological instincts and cognitive powers, adding them on to Tauri’s own.
Tauri now felt the urge to chase small mammals, but his cognitive processor directed him to exit the vegetation and go in search of artificial structures and sentient bipeds. Mom was especially interested in his observations of these creatures. Strange that he still couldn’t contact her.
His sensors told him his appearance wasn’t yet within acceptable parameters, but he didn’t feel like working on it any more. His fine motor skills weren’t good enough for faces, and it just made him angry when he viewed his attempts. Mom had such a pretty face. Faces were hard, unlike appendages. Anyway, he felt good in his new shape, energetic and boisterous.
It was fun trotting next to the hard surfaces. Loud, motored vehicles passed him, smaller than the big Tauri that had chased him in the vegetation but still bigger than little Tauri’s current form as a furry quadruped.
They belched as they moved, adding combustion exhaust to the humid air. Tauri decided he missed the smell of the squishy brown substance he had rolled his wheels through, but the feeling of small, mobile vegetation tickled his footpads and made him laugh, or rather bark.
Up ahead a rocky path led to a rectangular dwelling occupied by one of those bipeds Mom was interested in, what she called human beings and what the locals divided into categories of male and female, a distinction Tauri didn’t understand the importance of. The white metal roof was oxidizing enthusiastically with random, reddish-brown stripes contrasting to the chipped gray paint on the sides.
A tall but somewhat emaciated man sat on the steps of the entrance to the metal-box structure while consuming a beverage containing combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. Tauri thought he detected the scent of fermented reproductive bodies of vegetation.
Tauri attempted to establish a telepathic connection with the creature who called himself Floyd. Floyd’s thought processes seemed confused though, returning over and over again to distress over a lack of funds for purchasing more beverage, which he called alcohol.
This didn’t make any sense to Tauri at first. Tauri bounced over toward Floyd to improve the accuracy of his telepathic analysis. He had never tried to understand such a complicated hydrocarbon-based life form before.
Tauri’s database told him these sentient bipeds often enjoyed roughhousing with rambunctious, furry quadrupeds, and so Tauri tried to comply with these expected interspecies social constructs.
For some reason, Floyd turned out to be an exception. Tauri’s telepathic insights reported that Floyd viewed Tauri as a monster or a demon dog. Tauri wasn’t sure what that meant, but it seemed to be something negative.
Floyd was not at all receptive to Tauri’s sudden attempts at licking his face or patting his shoulders with Tauri’s footpads.
Floyd tried to bat Tauri away, but only lost his balance in the process and fell from the steps to the ground. Tauri wasn’t certain he interpreted Floyd’s slurred speech correctly, but the words did seem to involve Tauri getting off Floyd and off his land.
Floyd then stumbled back into the metal habitat and returned holding a longish metal device, almost dropping said device a number of times.
A small metal object flew out of this device accompanied by a fairly loud roar. As the object’s trajectory took it far from Tauri, it didn’t occur to him that Floyd might have meant him any harm.
However, Floyd’s clumsy manual gyrations with the metal device did eventually result in one of the objects penetrating Tauri’s outer covering. The object did no harm, as Tauri easily expanded his molecular structure at the appropriate places to let the object fly right through him with no resistance, but Floyd’s gesture did seem rude, if not unfriendly.
Taking a more intensive analysis of Floyd’s metabolism, Tauri determined that consumption of this alcohol substance caused neurological deterioration and interfered with behavior conducive to self-preservation, such as the consumption of adequate amounts of nutrients.
In addition, it caused a chemical dependency, making Floyd want to consume more and more amounts of this beverage. Well, Tauri could fix this situation. He merely sent off telepathic commands to adjust the composition of Floyd’s stomach fluids, making him violently nauseated whenever alcohol entered said stomach.
Tauri recorded the data from this encounter and first returned to the hard path that the traveling machines bounced along. Then he changed his mind and headed off into a new patch of hard vegetation as the sky darkened.
His rational thinking capacity told him he didn’t need any kind of self-supplied sustenance; his replicator functions were fully capable of extracting any necessary ingredients from his surroundings. However, this body he had changed into kept urging him to run and chase. He couldn’t understand the feelings but found it harder and harder to resist.
So he ran and ran and ran, around tall, hard vegetation, through thick growths of vegetation, up the sides of channels of liquid, down into the chilly substance. Running was so much more exhilarating than spinning his wheels.
The local designations of physiology started to make sense.
He could feel his heart thumping, his lungs expanding, his various glands spewing out unfamiliar combinations of hormones, his leg muscles expanding and contracting.
At first everything was a clumsy cacophony, but soon his functions coordinated their efforts, creating a perfect harmony of body and mind.
That’s when he encountered the other furry quadrupeds, all running just like he was, but chasing a spindly-legged quadruped with a fluffy tail. The chased creature transmitted thoughts of resigned exhaustion and slowed its pace, resulting in the pack of Tauri-like creatures jumping on it, ripping away its outer tissue and inner organs.
Tauri couldn’t stop himself from joining in. His teeth demanded contact with foreign flesh; his jaws contracted and pulled; his tongue lapped up the red liquid, which is when he dropped back and vomited.
His telepathic powers took over from his body’s instincts and he felt the agony of the dying creature beneath the predators, lived its life story, endured the suffering of its flesh being torn away.
This was the climax of the chase? He felt betrayed by his current physical form. He couldn’t believe what he had done. He was so ashamed. What if Mom found out? She would be disgusted by him and hate him forever.
Tauri stumbled away and wandered around the woods for three cycles of darkness and light. He didn’t know what to do. He could transform into a different life form, but probably he wouldn’t be able to trust his instincts there either.
Mechanical forms would always be threatened by bigger machines. But the bigger you got, the more difficult it got to control all the functions sufficiently. Big always meant clumsy. This planet’s living creatures had more options but were more vulnerable.
He wished he could ask Mom what he should do, but he didn’t know how to find her. His transponder-communicator was gone, and his telepathic powers were limited in distance. Maybe his navigator calculator could direct him back to where he and Mom and Mom’s boss has landed on this planet. All he had to do was backtrack.
This seemed to work at first. Soon he found himself in front of Floyd’s metal home. He allowed himself a whiff of pride, remembering how he had rescued Floyd from his alcohol poisoning.
But what were all those human beings doing around Floyd’s door? Floyd was screaming and some of the others were holding him down while others were manipulating their communication devices. A vehicle drove up with sirens blasting, and creatures in white clothing ran over to Floyd.
Tauri tried to make some sense out of what everyone was screaming and shouting. Floyd’s sensory input was damaged; he was screaming at things no one else could see. His heartbeat was quite irregular compared to that of the others, and he alternated between shivering and sweating.
One of the men in white clothing said, “delirium tremens.” One of the men holding back Floyd said, “Floyd would never stop drinking.”
After the men in white took Floyd away, the others just stood around. One asked, “Is Floyd gonna die?” By this time Tauri’s cognitive processor had digested and analyzed the data, and Tauri felt as nauseated as when he bit into the deer.
It was all his fault. These creatures couldn’t stop consuming drugs all at once, or they would die. Floyd had needed to be under medical supervision when Tauri stopped him from consuming any more alcohol.
Tauri slunk away unnoticed. His instincts had failed him again. He had been so sure that he was doing something good for these creatures, but he almost killed this one.
His physical instincts couldn’t be trusted even though he used indigenous creatures as models for his shapes. His cognitive instincts had insufficient data for this planet and led him to make miscalculations despite his good intentions.
He was a menace. Why had Mom brought him here? And where was Mom? Why didn’t she answer when he called out to her?
Tauri didn’t know what to do and so kept walking along the hard path until he reached the outskirts of some settlement where the human beings lived. Human offspring were walking out onto an artificially cut and shaved, green field.
One of the adults bounced an inflated, black-and-white sphere onto the ground and the immature females started kicking at it. The smallest female shook her long, blonde hair, twisted her stubby, little legs, captured the sphere with her feet, and began running down the field while kicking the ball. The rest of the females quickly turned and began chasing her.
Tauri didn’t have time to question his instincts. He knew how chases ended. He had to protect this youthful female from being torn apart by the pack pursuing her. He ran out onto the grassy field and barked fiercely at the other females, herding them away from the smaller one with the ball.
A loud, high-pitched penetrating noise hurt Tauri’s ears. Everyone stopped moving, and the child with ball started yelling at Tauri. “You stupid, ugly dog! You ruined my goal. I could have won the game for my team.”
One of the adults ran over and shooed Tauri off the field. “It’s probably just a stray,” she said. “Does anyone have something we could tie the dog up with so we can get on with the game?”
By this time Tauri’s processor had explained the concept of team sports and general lack of cannibalism among these creatures, and Tauri tried to slink off unobtrusively. He had done something foolish again. At least this time he hadn’t been responsible for loss of health or life.
He needed to find Mom and go home. This planet was too much for him, despite his genuine practical talents. Every time he did anything, it turned out to be wrong.
He rambled over to the edge of the field and panted, more out of shame than physical need. A little blonde girl bearing a definite resemblance to the girl he wanted to protect from the chase ran after him calling, “Dog, dog!”
An adult male followed her closely, saying, “Be careful, Sally. It might be a wild dog.”
Tauri whined sadly. He had started out as a wild, little machine, but time and mistakes had taken away his wildness. He waited patiently for the little girl to wrap her arms around his head. A quick glance into her mind told Tauri that that she was terrified of everything there, everything but him.
Remembering his past failures, he was afraid to use his telepathic powers for anything more than observation, but sensing the little girl’s unhappiness, he couldn’t help transmitting a calming message. It worked. The tense muscles in her extremities relaxed and she was no longer petting him frantically, instead stroking his fur slowly and peacefully.
“Daddy, I want this dog,” she said to the male figure watching them.
The man ran his fingers through his thinning hair and stuttered, “Sweetheart, he might already belong to somebody.”
Tauri caught the skeptical undertone. The little girl’s father, observing Tauri’s appearance after the three days he had spent in the woods, assumed Tauri was a wild stray, possibly even dangerous. He just didn’t know how to rescue his daughter without her experiencing another meltdown. She didn’t deal well with disappointment or frustration.
Tauri quickly rolled over on his back and assumed a submissive position. The little girl giggled and stroked his stomach.
Her father let out a relieved sigh and said, “Okay, sweetie. Give me your hand and we’ll walk slowly to the van. If the dog follows us, then maybe he wants to go home with us. If not, then he probably belongs to another family.”
The man did hope Tauri would take the hint and run away, but Tauri felt he should follow the little girl. Obviously he couldn’t trust his instincts anymore, but the girl had sought him out. So he loped over to the only van in the parking lot and looked at the door longingly.
The little girl wrapped her arms around his neck again. Tauri sent out tentative telepathic observations and determined that the family consisted of a husband and wife, one overachieving athletic daughter, and one sensitive, frightened, not terribly communicative one. Apparently there was also a grandmother, currently at home with a sitter because of some neurological problem.
When the mother and the athletic daughter returned to the van, the soccer player daughter started screaming that that ugly dog had ruined her goal. The child named Sally screamed even louder that she wanted to take the dog home with her.
Tauri sent a mild suggestion to the parents, which resulted in his getting lifted up into the back of the vehicle. Further cautious thought projections made the soccer player daughter more and more amenable to Tauri’s presence. By the time they reached the family home, everyone was convinced that Tauri belonged to them.
As soon as Sally got in the house, she dragged Tauri over to the family room furnished with clean but somewhat worn couches and leather recliners. In one of the recliners a white-haired, fragile-looking, old woman half-sat, half-lay staring at the ceiling even though the entertainment center blared out loud music.
“Grandma, Grandma,” Sally screamed as she grabbed the woman’s hands. The old woman just pulled her hands back and rubbed them absently. Tauri risked a view of the woman’s mind and compared it to the data his cognitive observer had gathered so far about the sentient life forms on this planet.
No wonder the woman wasn’t very responsive. The neurons and synapses in her brain were coated with some plaque-like substance, making them almost completely dysfunctional. Carefully, Tauri cleaned off one neuron. It was fairly easy. Tauri wanted to scrape them all clean but remembered to question his instincts. What if he only made things worse again? He had to be more careful this time.
Tauri quickly became satisfied with the new environment; these good people knew how to care for the dog that he appeared to be. He assimilated all the vocabulary the family used.
Still, watching Sally try to talk to her grandmother every day made Tauri decide he had to do something. Weeks of observation led him to the conclusion that he really couldn’t make the grandmother’s condition any worse for her or her family. So he started cleaning off one neuron per day telepathically, then ten per day, then a hundred, then a thousand.
After a few months, Grandma started talking to Sally, comforting her. Grandma had the same calming effect on Sally that Tauri had. At first Sally’s parents refused to believe anything was changing, but eventually they had to find some explanation for Grandma’s recovery.
They decided she had never had dementia, but rather some temporary inflammation of the brain. Their family doctor said he could neither agree nor disagree, that brain scans really didn’t confirm this theory, but that they should cherish the time they now had with Grandma.
Tauri regained some of his earlier confidence. He figured, as long as he worked very slowly and kept checking with his growing database of information from the planet, maybe he could do more good than harm here.
It made him happy whenever he could see that he did good. He was sure Mom would be proud of him, if she only knew.
As the days got colder, Sally had to dress more warmly when she took Tauri out for a walk. Tauri of course could regulate his body temperature as needed. Walking her dog seemed to forestall most panic attacks, or at least minimize the effects on her. Tauri hardly ever had to send her a telepathic assist anymore.
One day they stopped because the sidewalk they were using became impassible. The snowplows had piled all the snow from the streets into a small mountain just where they wanted to go. “Look,” Sally yelled as she started digging in the pile with her mittened hands. She pulled out a tiny, blue plastic disc.
Tauri stared at it and instinctively sent out a telepathic command to turn the beacon on. Mom appeared in Tauri’s mind. She looked just how Tauri remembered her.
“Tauri,” she said. “We couldn’t find you when we had to leave, but we’ve calculated two dates when other spaceships can beam you up and get you home. Don’t be scared. Just make sure you’re at the pickup point at the right time.”
His cognitive processor quickly calculated that one pickup date was the very next day, and the other one was in precisely one thousand revolutions of this planet around its star.
Wow. Tauri wanted to get back to Mom more than anything, but he was just getting the hang of this planet. Now he had the impression he could do some good things if he was careful, even if only helping one person at a time.
His cognitive processor commented that this could produce a ripple effect. The people he helped would go on to help others, who would then also help others. He suspected Mom would approve of that.
Maybe he could also teach these life forms how to use their inherent telepathic powers or how to make their bodies into efficient replicators so that they could cure their own diseases and repair their own injuries. A thousand years sounded like just about right amount of time, especially since he had to be careful.
In a thousand years he also should be able to figure out how to get back to Mom’s laboratory just before she did. He was going to have so much to tell her.
Mary Jo Rabe grew up on a farm in eastern Iowa, got degrees from Michigan State University (German and math) and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (library science) where she became a late-blooming science fiction reader and writer. She worked in the library of the chancery office of the Archdiocese of Freiburg, Germany for forty-one years, and lives with her husband in Titisee-Neustadt, Germany.
She has published Blue Sunset, inspired by Spoon River Anthology and The Martian Chronicles, electronically and has had stories published in Fiction River, Pulphouse, Penumbric Speculative Fiction, Alien Dimensions, and other magazines and anthologies.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Tauri”:
Author Mary Jo Rabe sent us this refreshingly delightful ET-like story. We loved how cleverly she brought her non-human main character, Tauri, to life for us and gave him a perfect personality for the piece. And we loved the unexpected and very resonant ending.