Excerpt from The Cerberus Project

David Weber and I both have stories in Robert E. Hampson’s upcoming The Founder Effect anthology (coming from Baen books in December). We thought it might be fun to share excerpts from our stories with you. You can find the excerpt from David’s story, Kamekura, here.


For Norman Borlaug, the man who saved a billion lives.

***

Mina squinted into Cistercia’s dawn as she pulled her scarf up and over her nose. Moisture settled into the corners of her eyes. The wind tugged the wetness across her chilled skin like tears.

Above, TRAPPIST-2 was at its zenith, very much like the Sun in Earth’s sky. Wispy clouds were drifting in, promising another chilly day. 

They had been lucky. Cistercia was so Earth-like, so promising. An ideal candidate, as it were. Or as close as humanity had found.

It had taken two days to climb up the foothills overlooking Antonia, the colony’s primary landing site.

Terraforming packages had landed on Cistercia years before. They had been followed by pre-landing drop-pods. The drones had cleared and plowed the surrounding land for agriculture. When the colonists landed, prefab domes and shelters had been waiting for them. They now squatted in the distance, neatly arranged with the larger dome in the center.

Still like a lake, Cistercia’s ocean shimmered on the other side of Antonia. No moon meant no tides. Of all the things Mina had thought she’d miss coming here, the Earth’s moon had not been one of them. 

A warm weight leaned into Mina’s leg. She petted the ewe’s curly head and earned herself a happy bleat. 

The thunk-thunk-thunk of a four-legged robot approached, its body slung low, just like a border collie in intimidation mode. It growled and barked at the ewe. Mina was standing close to a ledge and since the sheep had poor depth perception, One was simply doing its job.

The ewe retreated into the safety of the flock, nudging aside several sheep to put as much distance between herself and the odd thing that looked and behaved like a dog, but didn’t smell like one.

“Good d—robot,” Mina said.

No anthropomorphizing.  She’d promised. They all had. The Cerberus robots were to remain simply, One, Two, and Three. The numbers were even painted in reflective safety yellow on both “shoulders” and atop the domes of their heads.

The robotics people had outdone themselves. At first, they’d tried simpler robots that only resembled dogs because they had four legs, but the sheep didn’t respond to them. Herding worked only because sheep responded to the herding dog’s body-language. So the robots had been upgraded and made to look as much like a dog as possible. The servos, motors and hydraulic lines were covered in a pliable material that allowed them to move like dogs. Instead of fur, they were covered in segmented armor.  

During the final testing phase, the robots had been sent out among the colonists. Their dog-like facial movements were real enough that the colonists quickly fell into the habit of treating them as if they were actual dogs. It didn’t seem to matter that their cybernetic lenses didn’t have the warmth of a dog’s eyes, or that their bodies weren’t soft and yielding to the touch, or that the sounds they made were mere recordings. It didn’t matter that they didn’t pant or lick.

Inevitably, people would pat them on the head or cuddle them. There had been multiple attempts to teach them to fetch, shake, and roll over. Someone had even hacked into the behavioral programming to make them circle three times before laying down, supposedly as a joke.

Alysster Wallace, the chief roboticist, had turned purple and sputtered with rage. It had taken him days to calm down. After the “sabotage” of his heuristics he’d wanted to start over, but the need to move the sheep upland was too dire. The Cerberus robots wouldn’t be getting the ideal of the brand new million-trial education that Dr. Wallace wanted. 

Cerberus Three was bigger than One and Two. Closer to the size of a Great Dane, it doubled as a pack animal, carrying essential supplies for Mina and the smaller do—robots. 

She tugged at the strap of her shotgun, repositioning it from where it had shifted so she could pull out her whistle. It was old and worn, but it had served her family for five generations. If Mina had her way, it would serve them for five more. 

Leaning on her shepherd’s crook, she took a deep breath and put her tongue up against the inside curve of the whistle, drew it into her mouth and made the two short spurts of the “walk up” command. 

Like shepherds of old, it was Mina’s job to take her herd to better pastures and return with a larger, fatter herd.


Can’t wait to read the rest? You can get the advanced eARC of this great, new hard-SF anthology today from the Baen website.

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