by Mary E. Lowd
A Deep Sky Anchor Original, November 2022
A tiny metal object jumped through Lea’s open window, drawing her attention away from the Animorphs book she’d been reading. She put down the borrowed e-reader from her mom on the bed and went over to investigate.
Lea hadn’t seen the object very well — it had been moving too fast. Just a blur really. But it had reflected the sunlight, shining like a quarter thrown into a fountain, outshining all the pennies around it. So, she wondered if it might be valuable.
Though, what would loose change be doing flying through her second story bedroom window? Usually, Lea only encountered loose change when she lost a tooth, and then she traded it to her parents for credits in her allowance.
It was more likely that the shiny object had been some kind of bug. Maybe a beetle with golden wings. Lea had seen videos of those. They looked magical, even though they were just biology. Sometimes, biology seemed pretty magical. Other times, it just meant her parents bugging her about not eating enough protein and was very tedious.
Lea poked around at the shelves — littered with toys and haphazard stacks of books and various art supplies — underneath her open window, but she didn’t see anything that looked different from the usual chaos. Nothing out of place. Then movement caught her eye again, and she turned to look at the glass cage with her gerbils, Molly and Amalia, in it. They were brown and just the right size to fit in the palm of Lea’s hand while standing on their back paws and grooming their cute little ears with their adorable little paws. Lea loved them.
But they were both asleep, not moving. So they weren’t what had caught Lea’s eye.
Then she realized — the pile of sleepy gerbils had one more head than usual. In fact, a whole third gerbil.
“Where did you come from?” Lea asked the sleeping gerbils, leaning over their cage. She reached down into the cage, and Molly and Amalia snuffled a little in their sleep as Lea poked at them. They were warm and soft, just like usual, and also they were used to Lea bugging them while they were sleeping, so they didn’t bother waking up. The third, brand new gerbil, however, startled, jumped, and then flickered as Lea’s hand touched it.
Lea felt nothing as the flickery image of the third gerbil passed through her hand.
“Why, you’re not a gerbil at all!” Lea exclaimed.
The image of a gerbil flickered again, and this time, Lea thought she could see a shiny metal shape beneath the false image of soft brown fur. It looked sharp and angular, but also, kind of like a cricket. A metal cricket. It made Lea think of that robot from the old 80s movie that her parents loved so much.
“You’re a robot, aren’t you?” Lea grabbed the mesh lid that she didn’t usually bother keeping on her gerbils’ cage and slammed it down over the gaping top. She didn’t want this intriguing new creature who seemed to be very good at jumping to escape. Though she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted it trapped with her beloved pets either. “You’re not going to hurt my gerbils are you? Was that a hologram you used to look like one of them? Where did you come from? What are you doing here?”
Lea had a lot of questions for the tiny robot which was now trying to disguise itself as an extra lump of sawdust bedding at the bottom of the cage.
“I know you’re in there, and I’m not taking the lid off until you talk to me.” After a moment’s thought, Lea added, “You can talk, right?” Most electronic devices seemed to be able to talk — phones, e-readers with their read-aloud setting, computers, TVs, anything with a screen really. So why not a tiny jumping robot with hologram technology? Talking had to be easier than projecting holograms. “Stop pretending to be sawdust and talk to me!” Lea stamped her foot for good measure.
The sawdust illusion flickered like the screen of Lea’s computer when it started overheating from too many graphics-heavy video games. Then it disappeared, leaving the little metal grasshopper completely visible, sitting with its angular legs poised for jumping. Lea thought maybe — with legs like that — it always looked poised for jumping.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone, even gerbils,” the metal grasshopper said in a high-pitched voice. “Are you going to hurt me?”
“No,” Lea said definitively. She liked robots. She liked grasshoppers. She liked pets. And this robotic grasshopper certainly seemed like it had the potential to become a new pet. A pet who could talk to her. That would be awesome. “What about my other questions?”
“I escaped from a research lab,” the grasshopper said. “My name is Flerble.”
“Flerble?” Lea laughed. “That rhymes with gerbil. Which is what you were pretending to be just now. Flerble Gerbil. That’s hilarious. I love it.”
The metal grasshopper shifted its long angular legs but showed no other response to Lea’s amusement. Either it didn’t have a sense of humor — or at least, a sense of humor that matched hers — or it just wasn’t very good at expressing itself. It certainly didn’t have a very expressive face — just a tiny metal space with pinpoint camera lens eyes and a darker dot beneath them like a mouth. Lea suspected the darker dot was actually a tiny speaker projecting its voice.
Flerble did have a pair of tiny waving antenna atop its head. Lea thought those might be expressive if she learned how to read what Flerble meant by the different ways it was moving them. Right now, they were rotating in small circles. The movement made the tiny robot look kind of nervous, and suddenly, Lea felt sorry for trapping it inside a glass cage. That wasn’t very friendly of her.
“I’m going to take the lid off now,” Lea said. “Don’t run away, okay? I want to be friends with you.”
Lea slid the mesh lid off the top of the cage and slipped it back into its usual place, leaned between the cage and the wall. Then she stood by the cage, staring down at the little robot, flexing its legs much like a nervous insect, trying to decide if it should hop away and hide in some nearby bushes. Or in the case of Lea’s room, a nearby pile of laundry was probably more likely.
“You seem scared,” Lea said. “I won’t hurt you.”
“My programming includes a rudimentary understanding of human culture and therefore feelings,” Flerble said. “I am scared, but it’s not of you.”
“What are you scared of?” Lea’s voice got low and quiet as she asked. She wasn’t sure what robots were scared of, but usually, in movies and TV shows, robots were really powerful, so if something scared a robot, it must be pretty scary.
On the other hand, this robot was very small. It would probably be scary all the time being that small. Even cats would seem scary, and cats were the greatest animals alive. Sure, Molly and Amalia wouldn’t think so — they’d seem like food to cat, and they’d know it.
Flerble ran a metal talon at the end of one of its forelegs — it had eight legs, like a spider, even though they were arranged in a way that made it look more like a grasshopper or cricket — over its metal antennae. “I’m afraid of being taken back to the research lab I escaped from. I’m afraid the scientists will find me.”
“Then we need to hide you,” Lea said, immediately and confidently. She was already committed to her friendship with this tiny robot, even if the robot hadn’t technically agreed to being friends yet. “You can stay here and pretend to be a third gerbil. I don’t think my parents will notice.”
Flerble looked at the sleeping gerbils, and Lea could’ve sworn — though, she wasn’t supposed to swear — that the metal insect looked sad. Its tiny antennae drooped. Its whole body slumped.
“I guess that wouldn’t be a very interesting life for a robot who can talk and make holograms and all kinds of neat stuff…” Lea admitted. Then a thought struck her. “Hey, what other kinds of neat stuff can you do?”
“Mostly holograms,” Flerble said. “I was designed as a communication aide — people can use me to project images of themselves to places they’re far away from and seem like they’re actually there, walking around, doing stuff, talking. I don’t know. Whatever it is that humans wish they could do in a place they’re not at.”
“Huh,” Lea said. “So, like, working. You help people work from home.”
“Yes,” Flerble agreed. “It’s very boring, and I don’t ever want to go back there. It’s all meetings and timelines and charts and graphs and slide shows and budgets and–”
“Homework,” Lea summarized. “It’s an entire life of doing other people’s homework.”
“That sounds awful.”
The child and robot stared at each other in grim agreement about the adult world and its fundamentally boring nature.
“What you need is fun,” Lea assessed.
“Oh goodness, they really have been mistreating you. Even at school kids get recess, and we get to run around and play on the playground.”
“Tell me about playgrounds.” Flerble’s antennae waved eagerly in little circles, and each of the robots little feet lifted and stepped back down in turn, like it was ready to run away to playground as soon as it knew what they were and where to find one.
“Playgrounds are the best,” Lea announced. “They have slides and merry-go-rounds and climbing structures, and I pretend I’m a leopard in the jungle, prowling around and hunting gryphon-deer.”
“What are gryphon-deer?” Flerble asked. Presumably, Flerble didn’t ask about leopards because any reasonable person — or robot — already knew about the best kind of big cat in the world.
“Gryphon deer?” Lea asked. “Oh, they’re just an animal I made up. They’re like deer, except with big flappy wings–” Lea flapped her arms like wings to demonstrate. “–and an eagle’s head, ’cause that’s cool. Anyway, when I’m a leopard, they’re what I want to eat, because their wings taste just like cotton candy, and the rest of them tastes like the best steak ever cooked with steak sauce already on it.”
“That sounds delicious,” Flerble said. “Though, I’ve never actually eaten anything. Can you take me to a playground? And we could play this leopard game together?”
“That would be awesome!” Lea clasped her hands together and hopped like overly caffeinated rabbit. At least, that’s how her mom always described her when she started hopping that way.
Lea put her hand back into the gerbil cage, cupping it gently so it would make a good place for Flerble to settle. The metal robot climbed into her hand, resting as gently against her skin as a butterfly. Lea knew it felt like holding a butterfly, because she’d gotten to do that once at the county fair — there’d been a whole room of butterflies, and you could pay to go inside and hope they’d land on you. But this was better, because Flerble wasn’t confusing her for a flower or anything. Flerble was actually resting on her hand because they were friends, and they were going to play together.
“There’s a playground just down the street,” Lea said, lifting her hand up to her shoulder. “Why don’t you hide on my shoulder, and I can walk there. I’ll have to check in with my mom first, but she likes it when I spend time outside, so I don’t think she’ll mind.”
“Okay,” Flerble agreed, clambering from Lea’s cupped hand to her shoulder. Once there, Flerble cast a hologram over its body, turning itself essentially invisible.
“That’s pretty cool,” Lea said, turning to look at her shoulder and seeing nothing there. She even stopped in front of her mirror and stared — really stared — at the place where she could feel Flerble’s tiny metal feet clinging to the shoulder of her t-shirt — but the hologram was so effective, all she could see was a slight shimmer in the air. No one would notice it all if they weren’t looking. “So cool.”
As she expected, Lea’s mom gave her no trouble about the idea of walking down the block to play at the neighborhood pocket park. Just gave her a cellphone to keep in her pocket so she could call home if she needed to and told her to wear a face mask because the air quality was low today.
Wilmington Park wasn’t the biggest or best park, but it had a funny metal sculpture that was fun to climb on, a couple swings, and a slide for toddlers. Better yet, it had some decent climbing trees and shrubs that Lea liked to hide in when she was pretending to be a leopard preparing to pounce on a gryphon-deer.
No other kids were playing at the park today, possibly because of the air quality. Even though the air was smoky often lately, Lea seemed to be the only kid who actually wore a mask while playing. She was also the only kid who still wore a mask at school, and that could be kind of isolating. Other kids had trouble hearing her through her mask, and they ended up preferring to play with each other and not wanting to bother with the weird kid who still thought there was a pandemic happening. But her parents said it was safer than breathing germy, unfiltered air that kept going in and out of everyone else’s lungs and throats and noses. So, her choice was: wear a mask or go back to doing online school.
Sometimes she thought about going back to online school, but it had gotten awfully lonely having the only other kids in her life on a computer screen. Being the weird kid at school wearing a mask was better. Slightly.
“Okay, we’re here,” Lea said to Flerble, spreading her arms wide to indicate the grandness of the pocket playground, nearly the size of two whole lots for houses. “Yeah, it’s not much,” she admitted. “But I’m allowed to walk here on my own.”
“What do we do now?” Flerble asked. Its voice was a high pitched buzz, awfully close to Lea’s ear while it was still perched on her shoulder.
“We play,” she said. “I’m gonna pretend to be a leopard, and–” She pointed suddenly toward the bushes. “–there are gryphon-deer hiding over there!”
Lea startled at the sight of her arm, held out in front of her, suddenly transforming — her usual human arm grew thick, luscious fur decorated with beautiful rosette spots, and her skinny human fingers were replaced by a grand leopard paw. She jumped backward away from the sight, but it followed her. “Woah,” she said, moving her arm and watching the illusion follow it. Nothing felt different, but her arm definitely looked like it belonged to a leopard, not a lonely little human kid.
Lea held up her other arm, and it looked the same. She looked down at her body and found her clothes had been replaced by the same thick, spotted fur, all the way down to the tips of her toes, which were now adorable paws tipped with fearsome claws. She turned in a quick little circle and found a thick, sinuous tail following her.
“You’re doing this, right?” Lea asked Flerble. “It’s a hologram?”
“Yes, of course,” Flerble said. “You wanted to be a leopard, so I made you a leopard. It’s much more fun than just projecting some person in a fancy suit while they sit around talking about profits and the bottom line. Do you like it?”
“Are you kidding? I love it!” Lea exclaimed. “Let’s go chase some gryphon-deer!”
Lea wiggled her butt, just like a leopard would, except now it had a whole tail on it! Just as she was ready to tear off toward the bushes in pursuit of imaginary gryphon-deer, she stopped dead still. Still as a statue.
There was something actually in the bushes. Something beautiful with big feathery wings and long elegant legs and a hooked beak and big dewy eyes and cute conical ears. It was a gryphon-deer, a real gryphon-deer grazing on the bushes.
Lea couldn’t believe it.
“Aren’t we going to chase the gryphon-deer?” Flerble asked in its tiny, high-pitched voice.
“Uh… shhhhhh,” Lea said, afraid their noise would scare the magical creature away.
“I thought you wanted to chase it?” Flerble pressed. “Would it help if it ran away? Is it more fun to chase things that run?”
The gryphon-deer looked up, looked right at Lea with its beautiful brown eyes, and then spooked. It bent its long, willowy legs; spread its wide feathery wings; and began hop-gliding away — fast, but not too fast for a child pretending to be a leopard to chase it.
Even so, it took Lea another moment to realize what she was seeing — Flerble had cast another hologram for her. She’d never been able to chase a gryphon-deer for real like this. Usually, she just kind of ran around in circles until she got tired and dizzy and lonely and went home to bug her parents about maybe playing a board game with her.
This time, when Lea sprang into action, she really felt like a leopard, and her heart raced with adrenaline and joy as she chased the gryphon-deer all over the playground, over and under the climbing structures, through the bushes, and just generally everywhere.
After a while, Lea started to feel tired, but then a second gryphon-deer showed up, and she had to choose which one to chase when they’d split and go in different directions. When she started to fall too far behind, another would show up, hiding in the bushes. It was like the game just kept going, perfectly designed to entertain her, until she was overwhelmed with fun and happiness and fell down on the grass laughing and grinning, even if her laughter and smiles were hidden by a face mask.
As Lea lay in the grass, occasionally roaring like she imaged a leopard would, all the gryphon-deer she’d been chasing came back and grazed in the grass around her. They were beautiful and magnificent, and she could have watched them for hours.
But then a thought occurred to her: “Hey… what about a unicorn? Can you make a unicorn?”
“Of course,” Flerble agreed, and moments later, a shining white unicorn — deer-like and exactly the shade of new-fallen snow with a pearlescent horn rising from its forehead — strolled into the pocket park and joined the grazing gryphon-deer.
For once, Lea was happy that no other kids were here. If they were, Flerble might have to hide, so it wouldn’t get found and taken back to do boring work for the research lab it had escaped from.
“If you’re going to stay with me,” Lea said, “we’re going to have to figure out some way to explain you to my parents. I don’t like keeping secrets from them.”
“Will they make me go back to the research lab?” Flerble asked, high-pitched voice rising to an even higher pitch. The little robot sounded genuinely scared. It must have been awful for it living a life of nothing but homework.
“If you explain how unhappy you were, I don’t think so,” Lea said. “They’re very reasonable. Even so, we should probably be careful around other people.”
“The holograms I’ve been casting have been one-sided and utilizing a limited range.”
“They’re invisible from too far away,” Flerble translated its own jargon. “But I will be careful and keep in mind what you say. I would like to stay with you.” After another moment, Flerble added affectionately, “You are fun, and I think we can come up with even more good games together.”
“I think so too,” Lea agreed. She was very happy to have a new, secret friend.