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Tiny Cartoon Dinosaurs

Dr. Miriam Loxley was waiting for her wife in a computer lab that looked like it could have been part of any college campus or tech startup. Rows of computers sat on desks decorated by empty pop cans and various fidget toys. If she hadn't known she was in the middle of a prehistoric jungle on a secret island, filled with genetically reconstructed dinosaurs, she would never have guessed by looking around here.
The lab was mostly empty of people. It was the weekend, but one woman in the corner looked up from her computer and tilted her head quizzically.
Loxley thought she recognized the woman from some of her wife's work parties. She raised a hand and waved tentatively. "Hi, I'm Miriam. Angie's wife. You're Cheyenne, right?"
"Oh, yeah, hi Miriam," the woman said, leaning back in her chair in a relaxed way that seemed designed to invite Loxley to come closer and chat. "So, what brings you here?"
"Angie wants to adopt one of the failed comfort dogs," Loxley said.
Cheyenne's eyebrows raised. "You must have a big estate. Anyone who can keep a dog as big as a dinosaur would have to."
"Yeah," Loxley agreed. "Huge farm in the middle of nowhere."
Cheyenne nodded.
"So, what aspect of all of this--" Loxley gestured vaguely around. "--do you work on?"
"I'm an AI expert," Cheyenne said.
Now it was Loxley's turn to tilt her head quizzically. "What does AI have to do with growing dinosaurs and giant dogs to keep them company?"
Cheyenne grinned like she'd been waiting weeks for someone to ask her that. She tilted the closest monitor around to where Loxley could see it and put her hands on the nearest keyboard. She had several each of monitors and keyboards. Her fingers flashed over the keys, sounding like a sudden downpour, and a scene filled the monitor that made Loxley think of that old game, Zoo Tycoon. Tiny cartoon dinosaurs and dogs lumbered and frolicked through animated forests and savannahs.
"What's this?" Loxley asked. "It looks like a game."
"It feels like a game sometimes," Cheyenne agreed, still grinning. Then her face turned suddenly serious. "Strictly speaking, the cutesy UI isn't necessary, but the program underneath it will save us from ending up with dogs who need to be adopted out like Galileo."
Loxley hadn't expected Cheyenne to know the name of the dog that Angie wanted to adopt. "I guess there's only one dog that failed dinosaur bonding, huh?"
"It's not his fault," Cheyenne said. "We started with a grab bag of dog DNA taken from all kinds of breeds and mutts, just throwing canine traits at a wall really, to see what stuck."
Loxley frowned at that image. She didn't like the idea of throwing dogs--even microscopic parts of dogs--at a wall like overcooked spaghetti. Although, she supposed the reality was arguably worse than the metaphor--raising puppies with T-Rex chicks to figure out which ones made friends with the rapidly growing dinos and which got eaten.
"So, how does the program work?" Loxley asked.
"We take brain scans of dogs, line them up with their gene profiles, and then use those scans to create AI versions." Cheyenne went back to grinning like a cat who got to make mice run through mazes for her own entertainment and got paid for it. "We let the AI dogs play with AI dinos and see who gets along. Then we only grow giant versions of the dogs who will work well with dinos."
Loxley and Cheyenne stared at the screen in silence for a while, absorbed in watching the little cartoon dogs and dinos play. The dogs playing with the T-Rexes looked vaguely like Labrador retrievers; dogs who looked like collies circled around herds of long-necked plant-eating dinos, just like Loxley had seen in the field on the way here.
Greyhounds ran alongside Gallimimuses; scruffy mop dogs tousled with ankylosauruses. Loxley wondered what kind of implications a program like this could have if it were ever released from under the pile of NDAs that The Prehistory Zoo made everyone who knew about it sign.
Would it work on humans? Could parents someday use a computer program like this to predict whether one fertilized egg would grow into a rebellious teenager and another would be more cooperative and studious? The idea gave her pause. It was a lot of power to put in people's hands. On the other hand, didn't people already select for pleasing personalities through sexual selection, only having children with partners they liked? At least, theoretically. Would this be so much worse?
Under the weight of those thoughts, Loxley's own career--helping grown-ass adults alter their own bodies with gene therapy to develop bunny ears or cat tails to their hearts' desire--didn't seem so ethically ambiguous. Of course, she'd never found it as ethically ambiguous as all the protesters her own lab had suffered through seemed to imply.
If this place were public, those protesters wouldn't be wasting their time on her.
"It's fun, isn't it?" Cheyenne asked, completely missing the tone of Loxley's silence.
And yet, it was fun. And it was better than growing out a bunch of gigantic dogs with nowhere to go. She and Angie couldn't adopt all of them.
"Yeah," Loxley agreed. "It's fun."
"So, I guess you'll be going to the birthday party then?"
"The what?"
"Well, I mean, if Angie brought you here to meet Galileo on a Saturday, I assume it's going to be at the birthday party."
Loxley's eyes narrowed, betraying her complete confusion.
"Galileo doesn't do great with dinosaurs," Cheyenne said, "but he's great with people. So, they've been having him do kids' birthday parties."
Now Loxley was completely lost. "But... the NDAs?" Not to mention Jurassic Park.
"Well, yeah, it's only for the kids of company employees so far, but he's a huge hit. When we go public, they'll probably want Galileo to keep doing them as outreach. For kids with rich parents, of course."
Loxley had been picturing Galileo in some sad pen somewhere--the gigantic dog equivalent of an animal shelter. But apparently, he was romping around with little kids in birthday hats.
"Oh, there's Angie--" Cheyenne pointed back towards the entrance to the lab. "Have fun at the party!"
Nothing about this day had gone the way Loxley had expected. She was still shaken by the unexpected terror of seeing a real, live T-Rex for the first time, accompanied by a Labrador big enough to eat her in one bite. And yet, she couldn't think of anything more fun than meeting her new dog -- because really? what were the chances she'd say 'no' to this dog? -- at a little kid's birthday party, surrounded by cheerful faces and plates of cake and ice cream.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, December 7th, 2022

Author Comments

When I was working on "Tiny Cartoon Dinosaurs," my plan was that if Daily Science Fiction didn't buy the series it's part of, I would combine the stories into a single, longer story. Each flash fiction story would become a single scene in this longer story. In theory, it was a really clever plan that would have allowed me to send the series of stories to more markets if Daily Science Fiction hadn't bought it.

In practice, writing a piece of flash fiction that both works as a stand-alone story and as a middle scene in a longer story is a horrible headache, and I cannot recommend it. Although, I guess it did work out well in the end.

- Mary E. Lowd
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