by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, July 2019
The ruby-throated avian twirled, emerald wings beating in a blur, frothing the air with graceful gusts of wind that swept through the emperor’s branches and leaves, delighting his eye-petals with the sight of the frenzied dance.
“A marvel of genetic engineering!” the emperor fluted with his reed-like leaves. He clapped one of his broadest leaves on the shoulder of the human bioengineer from Wespirtech. “I congratulate you!”
The human, Keida, bowed her head to the emperor and held out an arm, summoning the ruby-throated avian back to her. The chimera of a dozen different sub-sentient species from as many different star-systems landed demurely on Keida’s outstretched arm, and pecked the human’s ear affectionately.
“Let’s see the mechanical one!” the emperor declared, fairly blaring the words from his reed-stalks. For a floral alien, he sounded an awful lot like a brass instrument.
The other scientist — also a human, also from Wespirtech, but gone freelance — held up a gleaming silver birdcage. Maradia opened the door, and her robotic creation wizz-zipp-whirred out to hover in the air before the emperor.
The mechanical bird gleamed with silver and gold plumage, finely crafted metal feathers every bit as beautiful as the organic bird’s red-and-green. Instead of dancing, though, it opened a long golden beak and whistled — voice trilling and tremulously skipping through a heart-wrenching melody.
When the song was over, the little mechanical bird flew back to its cage, and the emperor was speechless. His leaves and flowers quivered as if he would cry. Dewdrops sprinkled the petals of his light-sensing blooms. He had commissioned two of the top scientists to design the perfect companion creature for him — suitable for an emperor — and they had given him two perfect choices.
While the emperor deliberated, the ruby-throated avian flittered from Keida’s wrist over to the open birdcage held in Maradia’s hand. The organic bird landed on the perch beside its mechanical cousin, cozied up to the metal bird, and chirped querulously. The mechanical bird answered, and the two sang to each other. A cryptic, inscrutable, but breathtakingly beautiful conversation.
“Both!” the emperor declared, his frond-like vines vibrating like violins. “It is fitting for an emperor to have two companions!” He held out a long grasping-vine toward Maradia, and she handed the birdcage to him.
The emperor closed the silver cage and held it close to his core, vines and branches wrapping lovingly around it. The two birds, one mechanical and the other genetically engineered, sang to each other, deep inside the emperor’s foliage, like a heart that had fallen in love with itself.