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My Ship Remains

(2,856 words)

(First published in Learning to be Human)

“Parts may change, but the ship remains.”

My mother told me this before my first shedding, and I chant it mantra-like every time I discard my limbs for new ones.

I twist my mechanical arm, unscrewing the shoulder, wincing at the grating sound. My lamplight eyes flash orange from my reflection on the mirrored walls. Shedding time is once every two years, and now it’s my sixteenth birthday. Almost an adult robot.

Next shedding, they’ll put me in a black cocoon and open up my skull to modify the neural networks within. “They’ll add more replicants of dopamine receptors in your head too, Voki,” Mother had said. “It’ll increase your impulse-control and boost your executive functions. But it’ll also make you more prone to addictions. So be wise with adulthood. Most people and robots struggle with it.”

The mechanical joint makes a final crack as I release it. Rust covers the elbow, itching. A robot my age shouldn’t itch like that, but we’re not rich, and we get our parts wherever we can. You get what you pay for, and in my case, we paid for corrosion.

I grab my new arm from the table in front of me—about an inch longer, and I identify the poor quality by the uneven surface, the inconsistent color. Should provide relief for seven months before its own corrosion cycle begins. It’s okay. Two more years and then I’ll get my final parts.

My core thrums with anticipation and anxiety at the thought.

I have to score highly in the final exams. If I get into a prestigious school, they’ll pay for better parts. Parts that will absorb sunlight for energy. Parts that will open up lucrative opportunities down the road, and upgrade Mother’s corroded body.

Parts that will give us a chance at a fulfilling life.

* * *

Once when I was still a kid, walking down Asakusa market by the soft morning light holding Mother’s hand, I asked, “Why don't they make us adults straight away? Why use so many parts that get discarded?”

In reply, she shook her creaking metallic head, her verdant eyes squinting softly under rusted eyelids. “It’s an ill thing to thrust a being into existence without a childhood to colorfully filter the world first.”

I didn’t understand, but I didn’t know how to wrap a question around my confusion. I instead asked, “But what if we skip a few shedding cycles and save up for really good parts? We could get you new parts to replace those that have rusted.”

She shook her head. “It’s not how these things work.”

We passed over several street vendors, some selling crispy chicken to humans, others selling flavored liquid batteries with delicious chemical scents. Mother bought one for me, a viscous battery syrup the color of daffodil that tasted like candy and lightning.

A drizzle followed, and we opened the little doors on our scalps to bloom the black umbrellas nesting inside. With rain pattering over our heads, we walked along the market, heading to Sensoji temple.

* * *

Nightmares seize me again once the shedding process is complete.

It always happens. In my haunted dreams I see myself as a bodiless soul drifting in a digital world, trapped inside a machine forsaken by man and robot, forever in conscious agony.

I awake feeling scalding tendrils spreading from my core to all my joints.

The ceiling fan makes a creaky, whooshing sound above me, its evaporative cooling not enough to keep my temperature levels down. I rush to the window and pop it open, pushing my breast out to get some cold air through the grille keeping my core in place.

The door creaks open behind me. It’s Mother. “Bad dreams again?”

I don’t turn to look at her. My body craves the cold wind too much. “Yes.”

“Write them in your journal. Meditate on them. Facing your inner demons helps you tackle them.”

“I know, Mother. I’ll do it later.”

Her metallic footsteps echo toward me. “Dreams are just your neural networks correcting themselves. They’re good for you, even if at times they cause you distress.”

“Yes, I know.”

She lays her warm arm over my shoulders. Although right now I crave low temperatures, her touch soothes me. “My smart little boy. You know everything, don’t you?”

“No. I wish I did.”

I regret saying that. I can detect the thrumming of her core growing a tad slower. It hurts her that she can’t afford better equipment for me.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean it. I’m happy as I am.”

She caresses my head. “I have a surprise for you.” Her finger traces down the temple of my metallic scalp, then rests on a raised mark I hadn’t felt was there until she touched it. I place my own fingers beside hers and feel the outline of what seems to be a button.

With her other hand she brings a cup toward my face. A milky liquid seems to rest within, sprinkled with a brown powder.

“Press it,” she says.

I press the button and suddenly feel a strange new sensation suffusing my mental map. It’s wonderful, like flavored wind congealing inside me. Processing it is a struggle. It makes my core pound and heat up.

She presses the button again. “You can turn it off when it overwhelms. Do you like it?”

“But what, what was that?”

“Olfactory senses. I’d saved a little something aside for a minor bonus in your new shedding upgrade. The cup was milk with cinnamon. Did you . . . like it?”

I embrace her. “I loved it.”

* * *

I become obsessed with logging every scent in the world into my newfound database. Daffodils, lilacs, and lavender. Chocolate, strawberry, and banana. Turmeric, curry, and paprika. All of them together. All of them apart. Each pairwise combination.

What a rich world of experience.

I spend hours in Asakusa street, soaking in the redolence of human and non-human delicacies alike. With some of the money I’d saved from my occasional work at the local bakery, I gift myself a box of incense sticks. The store clerk is nice enough to let me sample them all before I decide on sandalwood.

When I return home I rush to my desk, craft a haphazard stand from plasticine and shove the incense stick in it, and light it up. That’s when the phone rings.

I answer it. “Hello?”

“Yes, hello.” A man’s gruff voice. “Is this the house of Miss Ferma?”

“Yes. This is her son speaking.”

“Could you please give me your name, sir?”

Sir? I’ve never been called that. Must be the updated voice module. It does make my voice a tad more baritone. “I’m Voki.”

“Voki, we would like to have someone come pick you up, if that’s okay with you.”

“What’s this about?” I ask, a low tremor seeping into my voice.

“It’s about your mother. She had an accident.”

* * *

The men that come to our house wear black coats and sullen expressions. On our way to the repair center, they inform me of what happened.

Mother works in an oil factory, and one of those huge machines fell and trapped her, crushing her lower limbs. They had to saw off her legs to pull her out.

In the repair center, they lead me through green-tiled corridors, heavy with chlorine scent. I turn off the olfactory module.

We enter a white door, labeled 2A and there she is, lying on a table, a tarpaulin covering her lower body. What’s left of her lower body. The blue plastic sheet sticks to the flat surface right below her waist, signaling the absence of her legs.

My wires go numb. “Mother?”

Something’s off with the way her neck creaks when she turns. Crunchier, like a gear has loosened and grinding with places it’s not supposed to. “Oh, Voki. Looks like I lost some weight.”

I rush to embrace her, digging my face into the crease of her armpit, refusing to look below her waist. Mother is strong. She’s not supposed to look like that. She’s not supposed to look so fragile.

“Mum . . .”

“Hush now, it’s not so bad. Legs can be replaced. Like the ship of Theseus, remember? Parts may change to keep sailing strong, but the ship remains.”

“Will the insurance cover it?”

The gears in her neck grind again, and I wince. I can tell she’s looking away from me, to the men at the door. “I’m afraid not, my love.”

“But we don’t have the money.”

“Don’t you worry about that. I’ll make the money. Worst case, I can just go into contract for a while.”

I push back. “No.”

“It would only be for a short while. But it won’t come to that.”

Going into contract means revoking your sentience rights to work as an unconscious corporate robot. It pays very well, and you get an upgrade to your parts—polished silicon to suck the sunlight, which overall benefits the company for not having to sustain you. But you’re no longer an employee. While the contract holds, you’re property. It’s zombification.

“No,” I repeat.

“All right, we’ll find another way.” With a finger she trails my temple. “Are you enjoying the olfactory module?”

My core shakes in my chest. “It’s great, Mum.”

* * *

The repair center patches the stumps below Mother’s waist and excises loose cables that could cause malfunction. After two weeks of training to walk on her arms, they release her. They mention most robots take about two months to pick up the intricacies of arm-based walking, but Mother’s a powerhouse.

Still, she can no longer work in the factory. Her boss gives her a pittance of compensation before sending her away, and Mother knows there’s no viable legal means to claim more. Paying lawyers would butcher any savings and the success chance is too low to be worth it.

She eventually finds a job at a flower store, earning a fraction of what she used to. I help her more around the house, and take on dull jobs to assist financially—which drains time from my studies.

If only we could afford better neural network modules for my mind. I could get into a prestigious school, get a lucrative position in a space exploration company. Make bank.

In my history studies, I learn there was a time all AI modules were open-source, allowing direct access to state-of-the-art models. But then, robots became sentient, shocked into being with an immense pool of knowledge that drove them mad. Someone proposed replicating the human growing process in artificial life through these shedding cycles, and that solved it.

But the damage was done. Red tape had fallen like a judge’s hammer over mind-related code, which only allowed companies to afford further development of such models. Commercialization dictated how things progressed after that. Until robot inequality became the norm.

I bring it up to Mother one day. We’re sitting on the floor and knitting scarves—a side hustle we picked up for some extra money. “How is it possible?” I ask. “I can’t wrap my mind around this fact no matter how hard I try.”

“Sometimes,” she says, “in our effort to make things better, we make them worse. It happens on an individual level, but it also happens on a large-scale level.”

“It’s not fair,” I say.

“History rarely is. But look, all those mistakes were part of the path that led to our existence. Me and you. Being here and now. We would probably never have that if things turned out differently.”

I stop knitting. “So our existence hinged on a series of human screw ups?”

“Might be. You can’t know for certain, but you must learn to accept things as they are.”

I stand, fire burning in my chest. Mother sets the scarf aside and raises her head to meet mine, seemingly alert to my agitated emotions. Her neck creaks again as she turns to look at me, a gut-wrenching wrong sound.

“When I fully grow,” I say, “when I go through my final shedding cycle, I’ll work really hard to make a difference. I’ll gather all the data needed to make my outdated neural networks compete with the state-of-the-art. With more efficient ways to parse data I can do it. Create my own algorithm and beat all of them.”

She blinks slowly, one rusted eyelid fluttering like a tick. “I’m sure you will.”

“I’ll open source it to the world and to hell with their red tape. I’ll find a way.” I lean over her and hold her hand in my palm. Cold and hard metal, eroded and rusted by years of work. “And when the time comes. I’ll get you new parts. New legs, new arms. A ship to sail strong.”

She lays a hand on my shoulder. “You don’t have to worry about my parts. I’ll get a good job soon. And then we will—will—will—will—will—will—”


Her head twitches in a repetitive motion. The grinding sound of metal against metal cracking and cracking and cracking. “Will—will—will—will—will—will—”

“Mother?” I shake her shoulders, but her head keeps twitching. “MOTHER!”

* * *

“Her chip is damaged,” the mechanic tells me, removing his gloves as he exits the operation room. He’s a robot like me, but privileged to work here, his hull free of corrosion. He smells of oil and gasoline.

“Can you save her?”

“Her sentience remains intact, but the language processing modules are corrupt beyond repair. Motor control of her head is a mess, too. It must have happened alongside the accident you mentioned. I don’t know how my colleagues missed it. I’m sorry about that.”

My gaze flickers away from the mechanic and lingers on the window separating me from my mother. She’s lying on a table, a robotic surgical system of three multi-joint arms casting claw-like shadows over her. Her head is still twitching.

“What can we do?” I ask.

“Chips need replacement. And there’s those gears on her neck that need fixing, or her head will topple off one day and ruin the new chips or cause other damages.”

“What will it cost?” I ask, not ready to hear the answer.

“It’s not cheap.”

“Just tell me.”

When he names the price, the joints on my legs loosen, and I crumble to my seat.

It’s ten times our total savings.

* * *

A multi-tiered building with glass windows looms ahead like a prison of ambitions. The logo reads Qumoond, and below in brilliant golden letters, ‘The cutting edge in all things quantum.’

Inside, I’m surprised that I’m greeted not by a man, but by another robot with male features. One with pristine hulls blue as photovoltaic panels, and a mouthless face. He’s dressed in human clothing, a jacket and a red tie matching his radiant crimson eyes.

“Your name,” he says, voice thin and sharp.

“Voki Dermion.”

“You understand the terms of the contract, yes?” He doesn’t even look at me. Just shuffling through his paperwork.

“Yes. I only have one request.”

“Go ahead.”

“I ask that you allow me to still be . . . me when in rest mode. When the job’s day is finished, and you have no use for me, when you set me to charge and rest. Let my sentience return for my unconscious time.”

“An odd request,” he says. “You know you will only be sleeping, right? You won’t be performing any conscious actions.”

“Yes, I am aware.”

“It will also mean your recharging takes more resources—more time in the solarium pod. So I’ll have to subtract that from your overall compensation. It will be about six extra months to your total of twenty years of service. Do you still want to proceed?”

I nod. What are six months, after all?

We sign the paperwork and he leads me to the mind operation room neighboring his office. Inside nests a cowled bed the shape of a black cocoon.

Its doors hiss open, and I step inside, ready to fall into a deep slumber. Ready for them to mess with my mind, turn me into a factory puppet.

It’s all right. It’s all right because I’m doing it for Mother. Someday, I will awaken again, and although I will have missed a big chunk of my life, missed the opportunity to enter a good university or pursue a lucrative career, it will all be alright. Because I’ll be able to fix her, and we’ll enjoy the little world we have left, together. Besides, they’ll screw sapphire solar-sucking limbs on me which would be an upgrade. And who knows? It might not be too late to make something of my existence and live a fulfilling life despite everything.

The curved dark doors close over me, and my consciousness slips away slowly, with one lingering thought bringing me a semblance of comfort.

That even without a conscious mind, in sleep I can still dream.

In sleep, my ship remains.

Akis is a writer of bizarre things, a biomedical AI scientist, and almost human. He’s also a Greek that hops across countries as his career and exploration urges demand. Find his fiction at Apex, Heartlines Spec, Apparition Lit, Gamut, and visit his lair for more:

Radon Journal Issue 6 cover art
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