Nini by Yukimi Ogawa
Published 10/31/2017 | 6,626 Words
What happens when an AI learns about old Gods, long forgotten by her worshipers? What happens, then, when that AI–call it Nini–decides to take matters into its own hands? Yukimi Ogawa’s newest short story is a far-future science fiction yarn set on a space station far, far away, told in Ogawa’s trademark horror style.
Nini found it rather amusing that the humans regarded it as “him.” To Nini, self was always “it.” Its appearance didn’t endear it to feel like a human. Even so, as it walked towards a group of women, a mere glimpse of Nini made the women cheer.
When the women were close enough, Nini bowed at the perfect angle for this specific group. Enough to show respect to the elderly, yet letting intimacy stop it from going too low. “Granny,” it acknowledged one of the women, “You must go to the medical ward. One of the medic AIs says they see something unsettling about your values.”
“Oh, have they been sneaking glances of my data yet again?” The Granny shook her head. “Those machines! Last time they looked into me… ”
Nini knew she was going to repeat her story about the AIs probing into her non-health-related values and backgrounds, some time ago. Other women started to murmur agreement, so it hastily cut in: “Granny. I assure you. This is really about your conditions, and important.”
The woman nodded. “Okay, Nini, if you say so. How I wish you were the doctor.”
Nini just smiled, knowing any further statement carried with it the danger of a longer argument from Granny.
“Thank you, Nini dear. Now let me give you some mochi!”
“Granny, you really don’t have to—”
“Don’t you be so modest, young one.” The woman made Nini hold the food wrapped in a cloth. “I know you like it.”
Just then the transportation arrived and took Granny away. Nini bowed at the other women of the group and walked away from them to go sit under its “favorite” tree across the hill, to eat its “favorite” food—even though it didn’t feel like doing any of those things. That location had been chosen because of its visibility. There, someone would notice and see it appreciating the food.
So it went to that place, and forced down a few pieces of mochi.
It was one of the old-fashioned space stations, the perfect lure for these older, more stubborn people. The sky was still blue here, the grounds covered mostly with soil. The humans here told themselves that they weren’t really being written off; —they rationalized their participation as a good deed for the future of the humans. While the wholly AI-powered medical team tended to their needs, they told themselves that they had been chosen because their conditions were not too serious, so that being isolated wouldn’t be too much of a problem.
They ignored the fact that they hadn’t applied for the project themselves, tried not to dwell on the reality that their own children or relatives had submitted them for the mission. They certainly did not spend too long thinking about the fact that their trip to the station probably was one way.
They loved this organic space station, they told themselves, more than the others they left behind. They reminded themselves that the organic scenery would improve their health.
And so, in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been so hard to imagine that they would complain about the inorganic, all-AI medical team.
Because the Program was still in the experimental stage, there were young engineers who worked with the AI team. “You should be the doctors, not these mechanical things,” one of the Grandpas would tell the young engineers each time he saw them at the medical ward.
“We are just engineers, not doctors,” the young people had to remind him each time. “We cannot heal you.”
The engineers weren’t bothered by the elderly people too much; in fact, they were used to that sort of absurdity, as humans.
It was the AIs who’d had enough. They hadn’t been programmed to deal with endlessly repeated complaints. Let alone absurd endlessly repeated complaints.
And that’s how Nini came to be, a ubiquitous connection, all-purpose AI
All purpose, meaning dealing with humans.
Its features were symmetrical and nonthreatening, a hybrid average of every human race kneaded into one entity, so that the humans found it familiar enough to like, but too featureless to love.
Its eating habit had been added as a function to further increase humans’ fondness for it. Older humans regarded sharing food as an important part of building the station community, for reasons the AIs never understood.
After consuming a few pieces of mochi, Nini rested its head against the tree and let the bugs in its digestive system work on the food. After exploring several theoretical possibilities, the research team of AIs concluded that bugs were the best way for Nini to digest food; better, even, than any chemicals that the researchers had synthesized. Chemicals had to be refilled in one way or another, causing a margin of error if a shuttle failed and supply delivery was late. Bugs, on the other hand, would reproduce themselves forever. So Nini didn’t have to worry.
The bugs decomposed the food and remade it into emergency provisions inside Nini’s body. Rice cakes were chosen as its favorite food because the bugs’ digestion capacity proved best with sticky rice starch, and also because people could carry and store rice cakes more easily than they could do so with rice in its various other forms. Also important was the fact that every year, a certain number of old people choked to death on rice cakes, and making Nini consume large quantities of them decreased the probability of elderly fatality by mochi.
Nini didn’t particularly enjoy the stickiness of rice cakes. But then again, the provisions it evacuated from its body, while excellent in nutrients and efficiency, were never greeted with enthusiasm by the humans. During periodical drills Nini had distributed the provisions to the human residents, but most of them didn’t eat more than one piece, took home most of the food that had been provided. It was some time later that Nini learned, from the information the station sent it, that the provisions were too dry, too hard to the humans’ taste. There was only one piece of rice cake left in its hand, and it seriously considered throwing it away, or leaving it in the grass for other organic creatures to consume. But Nini might be seen doing that, which might be interpreted as a slight to the humans. It swallowed once, to send some moisture down its pipe. And then it bit off a large mouthful.
And that large mouthful—it stuck, blocking its windpipe. Nini knew it wouldn’t die, not the way humans did, but many of its systems were organic, much to Nini’s chagrin, and thus required oxygen. Stupid humans. It only had organic parts because humans had desired them. Nini wasn’t panicking, not exactly, but its calculation on which system needed to last longer wasn’t going well. And it really wasn’t supposed to be wasting any more oxygen on such a useless thought process…
Its hearing was failing. It was aware of a faint noise, but had no idea what it was or where that noise was coming from. The next thing it knew, it was being struck on the back, hard. Its sight was mostly composed of dark dots at this stage, but it saw food dropping out of its mouth with the next whack on its back. And then, its head was yanked back and something else was shoved down its throat.
It was torn between coughing and drinking, ended up doing both and coughing more. When the worst of the cough subsided, it heard a voice: “Don’t you have any sense? Choking to death on mochi is exclusively for the elderly.”
It looked up, breathing hard. A quadruped robot, a very old model, was looking at it. Nini realized it still had the bottle of water in its hand, and drank more. “Thank you,” Nini said. “I wouldn’t have died, not exactly. But the bugs would’ve, and the humans would have had to wait for the next supply shipment to get the proper repair kit, and that would have been a lot of inconvenience.”
“Bugs?” The quadruped robot frowned, in a way only robots could. “Nini, I take it? The multi-purpose AI they installed recently?”
“You are right.” Nini handed the bottle back. “And you would be… ”
“I am Koma. The last of the construction robots from the first days of this station.”
“Are you that old?” Nini shifted involuntarily, sitting straight. “But why haven’t I heard of you?” It searched, and found no record of Koma in the ship’s records.
Koma laughed, in its own robotic way. “I am the forgotten. Take it easy. Come with me, if you will.” Nini followed Koma away from its tree, over a hill dense with trees and undergrowths. It knew there was likely to be an old tomb or a shrine upon such a hill, built by the humans at some point during the station’s history. But when Nini requested the details for this place, nothing came back from the station’s database AI This meant there was a lot of the station’s history that had been written off, long before Nini had been installed; probably that chunk of the history had been deemed useless by both the humans and the AI
With its four legs, Koma went much faster uphill but it waited for the biped Nini to catch up from time to time. Nini detected a lot of metals deep beneath the soil surface. “Tomb for your kind?” Nini asked, as they reached a small shrine at the top, just as it had expected.
“Exactly.” Koma looked back, making a lot of creaking noises. “But the shrine isn’t for them… ”
The way up there was deserted, no sign of humans and only the trace of a trail left by four legs. Yet the shrine building looked relatively well-tended. Koma called over the polished wood door. “Lady, we have a guest.”
Inside the building was dark, and Nini switched its optic nerve. It found a woman sitting in the center of the floor.
“Nini, this is the Pure Water Lady. Lady, this is Nini.”
The Pure Water Lady sprang to her feet. “You have my water inside you! How interesting!”
Nini shifted, sat straight on its knees and bent, its head low, according to the ancient habits data it found. “Only thanks to your pure water and your guardian’s generosity I am here,” it said as it sat back.
The Lady blinked. “Oh! No one does that these days.” She herself knelt in a polite way. “Your pure mind has been noted.” She smiled. “It feels so strange, but very nice, to have someone other than you paying proper homage, Koma.”
Koma creak-creaked, clang-clanged, which was its way of grunting.
“I am not complaining!” Then she turned back to Nini. “Koma is my hero.”
“When the humans of this station deemed me useless and abandoned me, Koma was the only thing that cared about me—which is funny since Koma itself was also deemed useless and abandoned once the construction was over. Koma’s faith and care makes possible my existence as a god, and with that little power that Koma lets me generate inside me, I’ve been helping by preventing its late coworkers from going bad in my soil, and extracting any remaining lubricants from them in return. We’re so much like each other, though we look nothing alike .”
Nini nodded. And wondered if things like itself had pushed the old-fashioned entities away, out of the history and the database.
Just then, the provision food made from the mochi got ready. It was faster than usual this time. It’d have to analyze later what had caused the acceleration, but for now, it took the food out of its evacuation compartment. It was small, probably because a portion of the original mochi was still somewhere under that tree.
Losing this small piece wouldn’t hurt, it thought. “Could I perhaps offer you this? If you do not mind?”
The Lady squeaked. “Food! I can have food? Are you sure?”
“Humans wouldn’t like it if they saw where it comes from. But if you do not mind, sure.”
“Why would I? Whatever process it’s come through, food is food!”
She shuffled across the floor to the altar and placed the food there. “I’ll have it later. It will last, yes? First I’ll just admire it.”
Nini laughed. It thought about how strictly it had been told not to let the humans know how it was producing the provisions.
Nini checked its digestive system, and soon figured out that the water from the Lady’s well was the key to the efficient and fast processing of provisions. It asked the Lady if it could sample the water, and when she said yes-of-course, Koma helped it get the water. The well was located halfway down the steep hillside at the back of the building.
“I wouldn’t mind stumbling down the hillside,” Nini said to Koma.
“Your clothes will get muddy, and humans would mind that.” Koma was already well down the slope, anyway. “Also, you don’t know where my late comrades’ structures are poking out of the soil, which may damage your human-like skin. It’s easier for me to go alone.”
Koma creak-creaked down the slope some more, until it reached a small well, hidden by a bush. In no time at all it came back with a bamboo bottle filled with the water. “Thanks.” Nini took the bottle from Koma’s lever. “I’ll make the best use of it.”
Back in its domicile, Nini found a certain type of bacteria in the Lady’s water. The bacteria worked very well with the bugs in Nini’s digestive system. Nini searched, but found no record of the bacteria throughout the entire station’s data banks. The bacteria-rich water must be the reason the humans had bothered to bring the shrine with them in the first place, Nini reasoned—though, obviously, they had forgotten about the Lady and her water over time. Further examination revealed that the bacteria seemed to work quite well with a certain enzyme that most humans produced, repairing genetic defects in the human body. It would be really, really great if Nini could somehow circulate the water throughout the station so that the humans would drink it on a daily basis…
“No.” Back at the shrine, the Lady looked truly sorry, embarrassed, even. “We have too little water. A few bottles a day is the most we can give away.”
“Is there any way we can increase the quantity?”
“If I could have more offerings of food, perhaps… ”
So Nini looked for more food. With the Lady’s water bacteria, its bugs could incorporate far more kinds of nutrients into the resulting provision, so Nini started telling the humans that it would like food other than mochi, too. Older humans, those who relished over-feeding the young, were simply overjoyed. Nini gratefully accepted their offerings, and produced an increasing amount of nutrient-rich provisions, setting aside a small quantity for the Lady, who accepted the offerings of food gratefully.
One night, thrilled that their favorite AI could eat more than just mochi, some of the humans invited it to a small party. Nini wanted to decline the invitation, because the fact that it could eat didn’t mean it liked to eat, after all. It still had to try hard to eat a lot of the time, and it didn’t want humans to see it trying so hard; but it also didn’t want to say no to them, especially when they seemed to be so happy.
So it went to the meeting house, where they held semi-regular parties after each supply shuttle arrived. Although it wasn’t much of a feast, most of the humans in the station looked forward to it every few months. That they had invited Nini caused something to stir in the organic part of its circulation system; a tickling feeling, deep inside. Nini wondered if it was in any way similar to what the Lady must feel when Nini offered her food.
It ate a mouthful of everything, letting each bite fall into different parts of its system and recorded the process so it could refer to the data later on. As it did so, it realized that around it there were only Grandpas, Uncles and young herons—humans who identified themselves as male. “Where are Grannies and Aunties, and the young lilies?” It asked at one point.
“They’re in the kitchen, can’t you hear their happy laughter?” It could, but why were they in the kitchen? As if he had sensed its silent question, one of the Uncles let it hold a small, small cup, and poured some clear liquid into it, perhaps to steer it away from the complicated question.
“Is this water?” Nini asked, truly curious.
“Better than water! Now, drink it up like a man!”
Nini wanted to frown—it’d suddenly remembered that many of them regarded it as male. And the liquid before it smelled strange. But everyone present was looking at it so expectantly, and in that atmosphere, there was no saying no.
At first it thought the bugs had escaped its digestive system, and they were causing Nini’s sight to blur. But no, something was wrong with its brain. Although Nini didn’t find itself wanting to laugh raucously or fall into a sudden slumber, like many of the Uncles around it were, there was something too strange to name right now firing somewhere in Nini’s neuro system. And it couldn’t locate exactly where or what was happening. This worried Nini.
And so it reached out to Koma through the communication line that they had secretly established. “It hit some of the bugs!” it said, once the connection went live. “Some of the bugs are dead!” It was aware that it didn’t have to exclaim the way it was doing; the noise of the humans’ dancing and singing didn’t reach Koma, it well knew.
And Koma’s creak-creak didn’t reach through the line, of course. Nini realized it missed that noise. “You mean your digestion bugs? What hit them?” Koma sounded confused. “Are you hurt?”
“I may be,” it replied. “But—the bugs!”
Koma fell silent for a while. And then, “Wait. You are at the party as you mentioned. Are you… drunk?”
Drunk! Nini queried the word. Drunk! This must be it. “The bugs cannot survive alcohol!” It knew it was repeating itself, but couldn’t help it.
“Are all of them dead?”
“No. I’d divided them to study the food-specific process. But about a fifth of them were affected, the alcohol was too fluid for me to pit in precisely.”
“Then it will be okay, Nini. Everything will be okay.”
Maybe it would. “I cannot digest this thing. I’ll have to get rid of it in some way or other… ”
“The Lady’s water might help.”
“I don’t want to waste your water!”
“It is not wasting. I am sure the Lady would approve."
Nini stood slowly. “I’ll come to your place, anyway.”
“I’ll meet you at the bottom of the hill.”
So Nini sneaked out of the meeting house, balancing itself so as not to let the liquid inside go slosh-slosh too much and kill more of the bugs. Nini searched the database for more information on DRUNK, and wondered if its overly careful steps right now looked like those drunken ones of the humans.
Later, in the woods near the bottom of the hill (Nini couldn’t climb with the dangerous liquid sloshing around inside it), Nini waited for the alcohol to be washed away, with its forehead on Koma’s mechanical trunk, listening to its faint sighs of creak-creak, finding the sound the most soothing thing in the known universe.
“Nini! Where have you been?!” Two elderly women stood waiting for Nini, looking relieved.
Belatedly it realized it had turned off the human-AI communication line when it left the party. Of course it had left the emergency line open, but this must not have occurred to the women, who now were eagerly holding its hands. “I’m sorry, Aunties, what have I missed?” Nini projected a mildly-worried look on its face.
“Oh no, no, no.” The woman in the middle, who had lung problems, wheezed a little. “We heard that one of the Uncles gave you sake! And one of the young herons remembered being told that most of… of your… your kind—should keep clear of alcohol!”
Of course. They did have the users’ manual, just in case. “I’m fine, Auntie. Though I have no intention of drinking it again.”
The women laughed. “Of course! You should try our tea instead.”
Its face muscles involuntarily stiffened. “T?”
“Oh it’s nothing bad! You can check it before you drink it.”
As promised, Nini was allowed to sample this “tea” first. It didn’t taste as good as the Lady’s water, of course, but the bugs could deal with this liquid. “This is okay,” it said, and the women cheered.
The women let it try many of the tea things. Their compositions were mostly the same, with just slight differences resulting in different flavors. Nini was surprised that the humans could discern the subtle differences in taste with their incomplete receptors. The women seemed to be delighted the way Nini took one sip from each cup and mused about those differences.
And so, Nini had an idea.
Over the next few weeks, Nini kept sampling more foods, more drinks. It made the best use of its young looks and innocent-sounding questions, and the humans indulged their favorite AI They let it taste everything first—which gave it a chance to add some water into the liquor jug, or the tea pot. There wasn’t enough of the Lady’s water to circulate throughout the entire station, but adding a little bit of it every chance it could find wasn’t too hard.
As it had hoped, and expected, people’s health gradually began to improve. “When they are well enough to realize it,” Nini said, at the shrine on the hilltop, “I’ll tell them how their recovery happened. They’ll be really grateful. They’ll come and offer you their food.”
“I do hope that will happen but… ” the Lady looked down at her hands. “I don’t know… maybe they’d like it better if they think the benefit comes from you.”
“What do you mean?”
Koma walked in, with bottles of water dangling from its trunk. “We’re too different from humans. They wouldn’t want to attribute something good to things like us.” It handed the bottles to Nini, just as it did almost every day.
Nini took it. “But… I am sorry to say this, but at least the Lady looks mostly like the humans.”
Koma smiled, in his way. “Yes, but still, her very existence, her very nature, is too different from them to embrace her. I suspect most of them don’t hear her the way you and I do.”
“I don’t understand.”
The Lady took Nini’s hand. “I appreciate your care, and you can try of course, I have no reason or way to stop you. But whatever happens, don’t be hurt. We don’t want to see you hurt.”
Nini frowned. “I cannot be hurt. I am only an AI”
As it had hoped, the humans started to see that they were getting better. First the medical AIs noticed the improved readings, and then the young herons and lilies, the engineers with their instruments and gauges, picked up on the improvements. Some Aunties and Uncles actually felt better. The time was approaching, when it could finally reveal the true cause for this miracle. The humans would be happy. That would make the Lady and Koma happy.
Everything would be better.
Nini chose to reveal the truth at another post-supply-shipment party (this was Nini’s tenth or eleventh such party). As usual, the Grannies and Aunties and young lilies were chatting in the kitchen, while the Grandpas and Uncles and young herons took the comfort of the floor. It was something Nini could never get used to—Nini was the only one that walked freely to and fro between the kitchen and the meeting room.
Nini was in the kitchen, secretly adding some water into the soup pot, when a commotion erupted in the meeting room. The women looked at one another’s face for a moment and headed out of the kitchen.
There they found one of the young herons on the floor, his face red with hives, his breathing ragged and uneven.
Before anyone else could acknowledge the situation, Nini was sending the data to the AIs at the hospital: anaphylactic shock. Triggered by…
The organic part of Nini’s brain was screaming, even as Nini automatically acted to ease the young man’s suffering, appropriately positioning the young man to help his breathing. Moments later, an appropriately-prepared concoction arrived through the emergency supply line, and Nini shot it into his thigh. Nini ignored the screaming part of its brain, and there was not a moment of hesitation in its movements. The young man was breathing relatively evenly by the time the transportation to the medical ward arrived.
“I’m coming with him.” Nini stood. “I need to talk to the medics.”
The humans understood that there was something odd going on, and so they all followed Nini and the young man to the medical ward.
So Nini here, one of the core medical AIs was saying, has been tampering with your drinks and foods.
Nini said nothing, because it didn’t sound like a question aimed at it. And one of the Aunties spoke first. “He meant well, obviously. And he’s like just a child. You cannot expect him to be perfect… ”
Unlike Nini, this AI didn’t have a name. Unlike Nini it hadn’t been given a human form. It was just a box, which processed a huge amount of data, and projected messages upon a screen. At first it hadn’t been even given a voice; that came later, when the young ones found reading inconvenient.
This “child” almost killed one of your fellow humans.
Nini knew that the AI was exaggerating, but it couldn’t say that. “This is why I don’t like them machines,” the Aunty muttered under her breath, though Nini knew the medic could hear that.
Nini. For the first time, the AI addressed it directly. Why didn’t you assess the possibility of contamination? You knew about the iron and lubricants of the ancient robots buried in the soil around the well. Why did you disregard that knowledge?
“I guess my faith in the Lady’s water became too strong.”
The humans exchanged glances. The medical AI sighed, in its way. To the humans, it sounded no different than its normal rumblings. Nini. Humans decided long ago that they do not need or desire gods. Your actions perfectly demonstrate why the humans made this decision.
“Yes. But… have they really, truly explored every single possibility of what gods can do?”
Your god’s miracle almost killed a young human.
“Yes, but can’t we work together, human and AI, to figure out how we can use the Lady’s water without contamination? You know perfectly well that the water was working miracles on most of the humans, when truly pure.”
The AI rumbled again, but Nini didn’t sense irritation this time. After all, just like Nini, the medical AI had been built to serve humans.
And then, one of the humans said: “Nini, Nini. Take us to this god.”
There wasn’t a transportation system that reached all the way to the hill, of course, and this fact alone made a few of the older humans decide to stay at the medical center and wait. And then there was the matter of the hill itself, and those who weren’t fit enough to climb had to wait, too.
There were more than ten humans, in addition to all the young ones, who, despite their difficulties, were determined to go see the god.
Because of course it was a god.
Most of the Uncles and Aunties had forgotten about such things, and the young ones had only read or heard about gods in books or history class. Who wanted to miss such a chance?
Nini guided them the way Koma had done for it before. It took much longer to reach the shrine than it would have taken for Nini alone, but they all made it. The few Grannies and Grandpas were delighted at the sight of the small building—they’d left behind something similar a long time ago, when they had been very, very young.
Hearing the commotion, the Lady opened the door. Nini smiled at her and she smiled back—but for some reason, her smile looked sad. Nini looked back at the humans behind it, but there was something wrong. They all hung back with an expression on their faces that Nini did not understand.
Nini turned back towards the Lady. Just then, Koma, previously hidden in the shadows, came into view of the humans.
“What is that horrible thing? Nini, that’s not the god you were talking about?” one of the Aunties pointed at Koma, her face a grimace of disgust.
Nini spun around, the way it shouldn’t have done in the humans’ presence—too sudden, too unnatural. All of the humans flinched—a few even jumped. “This is Koma, the wise, loyal guardian of the goddess. Don’t you see her? The Lady, behind Koma?”
The humans looked uncertain. They knew Nini would never tell such a lie. But…
“Nini,” Koma said. “I told you… they cannot see her.”
One of the young herons covered his ears and said, “What was the sound that thing just made?” And Nini snapped around to face him. He gasped.
“Nini,” Koma whispered, its voice lower. “They don’t understand my speech. You can only understand my speech because you are what you are.”
“So Nini, you’re saying,” an Uncle—the one who had made it drink alcohol—took a heavy, half-shuffling step towards the building. “That there is a god behind you, though we cannot see her, and that this old, raggedy ancient robot is the only thing that represents the god’s presence to us?”
“Oh you should take over that role, Nini.” A Granny chirped in. “Like you do with the medical things. Really, I don’t understand those machines. They could be beautiful like our Nini! Why haven’t they done their best to blend in with us, just like you do?”
“Koma has been here longer than any of us, knows this station better than any of us,” Nini said, looking around at the familiar faces. “I don’t understand—” some organic membrane in its throat vibrated in a strange way, and it didn’t like that one bit. “Uncles drink sake, Aunties tea. The medics drink data and Koma here drinks lubricant. You like differentiating yourselves so much, and yet, there are differences you can embrace, and differences you cannot. Where does the border lie? What draws the line? I do not understand.”
In that moment, the Lady fell. Even the humans sensed it, though they could not see her, still. The building and a large part of the hill shook with the impact of her broken body.
Nini frantically checked, but there was no available data for helping gods. It sent a message to the medic AI, asking it to see if there was anything it could find for the goddess. Nini rushed into the building, leaving the humans crouching or kneeling on the ground outside. “Lady,” Koma and Nini said in unison.
The Pure Water Lady was there, but something was wrong.
Nini winced. “If I don’t concentrate really hard, I’m going to lose hold of her existence.”
“I don’t feel that, Nini. That’s probably your organic parts.” Koma shook its trunk; for the first time, it seemed to be at a loss what to do next. “I don’t understand. They’d forgotten about her long ago. Why would being rude to her do any harm now?”
Koma folded its four legs and crouched beside the goddess who was becoming translucent. Nini’s fingers twitched. “My fault,” it said.
Koma looked up from the Lady to Nini.
“She’s been okay with the humans forgetting her, because that change had been gradual, and also, she had you, and your comrades, even though she’d been weakened a lot.” The medic was transmitting Nini everything it could find, but it didn’t seem enough. “Now, because recently I’ve been added to her worshippers, and because the food I offered her technically came from the humans, the balance was lost. And the humans were speaking ill of you, Koma. Her most devoted worshipper and guardian, the most important being in her existence.”
Koma looked back down at the Lady. To Koma there was only one or zero. Nini could feel the Lady’s presence getting thinner and thinner but Koma could only see it when her presence turned off completely to zero.
“I killed her,” Nini said. “I killed a god.”
There wasn’t much time to linger on that matter, though. Without the Lady, something in the hill was winding down and falling apart. “My comrades,” Koma whispered, but then soon sprang onto its four legs. It ran out of the building and leapt amidst the humans who yelled or screamed. “Nini, tell them to climb onto my back.”
With the choice between life and death before them, they did. But Koma’s trunk wasn’t large enough to accommodate all of them, and even though Nini helped one human at a time, they still had to do three rounds. Just when they had climbed the final slope down , the landslide started, somehow inwardly, taking the building into the hill itself. The Lady’s remaining energy protected Koma and Nini. Here and there they could see the rusty carcasses of Koma’s late comrades, fierce and intimidating to the human eye.
The well was gone.
Unsurprisingly, the residents’ health declined. It was just reverting, going back to normal as it were, but after enjoying weeks of improvement, the decline was hard for the humans to accept.
Unsurprisingly, the humans decided to leave the station, but no one told Nini where they were going. Weren’t they all homeless, in a way, let go of by their families, their illnesses used as a flimsy excuse for their exile?
The humans let the medical AIs of the station choose to stay or go, because they were humans. Sensible, righteous humans, who always gave any sentient being the right to choose. The worthy AIs chose to go with the humans, because they knew they still could serve—even though they didn’t much care to watch the Grannies and Grandpas and Uncles and Aunties sobbing and going on about how useless they were. These AIs couldn’t help going with the humans—maybe there was no choice for them, after all.
Nini decided to stay, because it knew it wasn’t that useful, and that the humans would rather make a new favorite android from scratch, rather than keep an AI who had made a mistake.
But Nini had Koma, and there was nothing to regret.
Time passed. Incredibly, the humans never forgot about the station, because Aunties and Uncles, and young herons and lilies told the stories of the station. They shared tales of the cute, very likeable AI who had shared their food, to younger generations.
And so, countless years later, when their technologies had evolved sufficiently so that humans could afford to satisfy their adventurous spirit, they remembered the stories of the little station. Perhaps, they dreamed, that adorable AI still lived, though no one knew exactly how much time had passed since they abandoned it.
When the shuttle arrived and docked, the adventurers were quite touched by the beauty of the organic station, though it looked a bit rough with overgrowth and strange plants. And the way these plants moved towards the humans, stirring in the breeze—and here the humans had thought there wasn’t enough air to generate wind on the station’s surface. There must be some explanation for the breeze, some force the humans had yet to discover, and wouldn’t that be amazing?
They walked around cautiously, looking for any remnants or hint of the legendary AI Legend told them something about a slope, so when they found a sloping area, they climbed, to find a strangely shaped mount of soil.
When they were close enough, they realized the mount was partly made of metal, with a rusting structure made of archeological iron atop the hill,. The adventurers, excited at the hint of life, entered through one of the narrow openings through the ancient metal support beams.
It was dark inside, so the adventurers put on their lights. The light bounced off something metallic—iron again, most likely, but this one beam glimmered brightly in the light, unlike the rusted supports outside. Beside the shiny metallic-iron thing, there was something else—something shaped like a human head, but…
The iron thing made a strange noise, and the thing beside it moved, extended itself, revealing a honeycomb structure beneath its grotesque head. The human-head-like thing turned, too—and yes, it had eyes, and a nose and mouth, just like a human face.
What the adventurers had thought to be a honeycomb structure, upon closer observation, turned out to be a mass of writhing, teeming bugs. Here and there human-made materials dangled—old machinery, wires, bottles and eating utensils—but it was mostly bugs that carried the head. The face itself was pleasing—even cute, quite likeable, probably, if one could ignore everything else…
None of the adventurers said a word. The head looked at them, and then said, “Oh. What are these things?”
It was horrible—their own language coming out of something so foreign, so… alien. The iron thing made another noise, to which the head smiled. Smiled. “Oh these things—they are organic, whatever they are!”
How could the humans expect the A.I, to remember them? How could they know that when Nini—belatedly—realized that there was no one left that could repair it once its organic parts started to decompose, it had to discard relatively unused data to survive first? Just like, once, humans had had to discard the idea of gods to justify their own mecha and genetic evolution, Nini, too, had to embrace its own changes. These adventurers didn’t know, would never know, how Nini had tried to get by solely on the provisions it had once made for the humans and that humans had hidden, thrown away, and left behind uneaten, at first. That later, as these excreted provisions became scarce, how Nini separated itself into an organic head, and bonded itself to Koma’s sturdy iron body, to minimize its dependence on organic material. How the head and the iron grew plants to have organic foodstuffs for the head to feed upon, once it had eaten up everything that had been left behind by the erstwhile humans, the lost Grannies and Grandpas, the disappeared Aunties and Uncles, the long gone herons and lilies.
How Nini felt pangs of hunger, for the first time. Not a tickle, or a fluttering, but true hunger—the kind of hunger that the humans tried to ward off with their parties, the hunger that had consumed Nini’s fallen goddess.
How Nini decided to keep the station alive, maintaining its signal and appearance to the outside universe, just in case the humans ever decided to return. But of course they never returned over the years. The organic plants that Nini ate were not enough to sate its hunger. They were never enough to sustain Nini’s systems, its bugs, which had colonized and spread to maintain the entire station.
No one escaped this station.
Not a single adventurer, or any rescuer who came after them.
And the half-organic AI and the iron AI lived happily ever after.
Nini was originally published in The Book Smugglers’ Quarterly Almanac Volume 4.
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