Jin was typing away in his dimly-lit room, deep into the smog-filled Shanghai night, when the little bot bumped into his leg, interrupting the writing of his dissertation. It let out a disappointed whistle, then rotated ninety degrees and continued on its way.
Jin watched as the tiny thing skittered into the darkened corners of his apartment, barely enough mobility to make the most rudimentary directional adjustments on impact against solid objects. He glanced at the timer glued to its chrome black surface as it went past. Counting down the hours and days in bright red lettering until the next upgrade. He thought a lot about what he’d say to it upon completion, but had not been able to come up with anything good.
Less than twelve hours left.
They kidnapped him a few hundred kilometers south of Kraken Mare. He had been in contact with prospective interviewees during the data-gathering phase of his dissertation and had meant to meet one in the mining settlement by the methane sea. However, an EMP fizzled his automated vehicle near the destination and he was soon staring out the window at a group of Formicidae closing in. Their abdomens swished with the liquid methane they were harvesting.
One of them crawled up and leaned in so close that Jin could see the darkened lens of their camera eyes rotating, scanning the inside of his vehicle.
“Put your suit on and get out.”
Their voice, despite semi-muteness through the glass, carried a quality like an old celebrity his grandfather had doted on. Jin would have chuckled under a different context.
A Formicidae requested that he get on their back. Politely, of course, there was no need for intimidation in a situation like this. They carried him all the way to the other side of Kraken Mare to a place he hadn’t seen on any maps of the area. A small community of ramshackle homes made with pieces of scrap metal. They took him inside one and gave him a tube which pumped him full of Terran atmosphere. It was bitingly cold despite his insulated suit.
The little bot was in the corner of the mostly empty room, next to a pile of scrap electronic parts. It was too early to even call it a bot. It was a round, metal shell that whistled, really. The hollow space where the cameras would go spooked Jin the most. It wasn’t the emptiness, but the promise of something there that wasn’t. A timer ticked down on the wall directly above the bot – around one hundred and sixty-six hours left.
Another Formicidae pointed him to a computer.
“Fifty million,” they said in the voice of a sonorous woman he didn’t recognize. It must have been a much older celebrity, perhaps famous before he was even born. “Do you or your family have that?”
The midnight oil, midnight leftover solar power, midnight Dyson extravaganza.
As an imperative of living beings, reproduction is essential to the humanity of off-world posthumans. Yet, Terran legislation transformed it into a means of control. Jin continued writing, his fingers clacking, echoing into the void.
Reproduction, therefore, signifies not only the production of offspring via biological and/or mechanical processes, but also the replication of systemic flaws.
Words had mechanical spines. They dug into him, gripped him, made the scene unfold over and over in his head. The Formicidae crawled in and out of the dilapidated shed. Pieces of metal on their patchwork bodies labeled with the names of countries or companies they’d never know except as a decal: Spray-painted art. Near the docks, the cargo ships unloaded the ‘offspring’ of posthuman settlers by the droves. Designed on Earth and assembled on Martian and Lunar facilities. Intimacy and bonding removed, stripped to the bare, rational skeleton of species continuation.
A lineage, a hereditary cycle of sociopolitical injustices.
He took his hands off the keyboard. All day he’d written nothing but abortive words.
In the morning, he updated the little robot, giving it a full range of directional mobility and finally installing the cameras it desperately needed. As it came online, its darkened lenses whirled, scanning its perimeter, eyeing his meaty flesh. Those holes that let in light which were so different from what it had. Jin wondered if it would remember this moment when he finally gave it wetware. Would it be curious as to the nature of their differences?
He wondered what would have happened had he made it into the mining settlement by Kraken Mare, but quickly shook off the thought. There was probably never a meeting in the first place. The professors on Earth warned him of this possibility. Titan was particularly dangerous, they said. But he chose to ignore them. It was not their responsibility. He made that perfectly clear when he boarded the American ship built with Chinese parts, paid for with Tanzanian money.
The transfer had not come through. The Formicidae took photos of him and sent them to Earth. But without being able to take off his helmet, there was little point, really.
His parents were well-connected and it was indubitable that some rescue plan was being formulated – which would explain why the transfer had not come through. A blunder, in his mind, on his parents’ part. As his abductors became more impatient, he began to hear whispers of what they should do with him should they have to abandon their project. Though he was aware that such abductions rarely resulted in casualties, it was never a certainty. As far as he was concerned, the longer he stayed, the more likely it was for the Formicidae to do something irrational in their frustration.
The plan seemed doomed from the very beginning, in some ways.
“My parents fought for people like you,” Jin said on the sixth day to a Formicidae he assumed to be the leader of the kidnappers. He named them California due to the faded flag printed on a part of their metal shell. Designed there, he supposed.
California laughed. The sound glitched a little half way through. “And I suppose you feel that I’m being ungrateful?”
“I’m on your side,” he said. “I’m doing research to set you free. There are people like me on Earth, contrary to how it may seem.”
“You, your friends, your parents, all imperialists to me,” they replied. “Also, I read the document on your computer. If ‘violent resistance’ is what this is to you, then you aren’t about to say anything new.” They rotated around the room only to realize that they were alone. “If others were here, they’d agree with me. I couldn’t care less about overthrowing some corrupt leader I’ve never met. No resistance here. Nor violence, if you think about it. We do what we do for the same reason you do what you do: to protect our family and our offspring.”
Those words surprised Jin. “You care about those new Formicidae being delivered to you?”
“Of course not. We break those apart to patch ourselves.”
“Then, by offspring–”
He was interrupted by an abrupt, high-pitched ringing. California turned and glanced at the wall where the little bot rested. The timer had run out and flashed incessantly, producing the noise. California moved quickly, skittered over to the pile of scrap metal and found a set of small legs, like a miniature version of their own. They attached them to the little bot, along with a set of basic impact sensors on the joint of each of the six legs – so it would know to turn once it bumped into something. When he was done, he took the little bot off its frame. It whistled, then started to mindlessly skitter around the compound. California turned their cameras on Jin.
“The money,” they said. “Wetware is expensive here and the ones that come off the docks aren’t sophisticated enough.”
California was wrong to say Jin’s parents were imperialists. However, Jin would be lying too if he said his parents were revolutionaries. He had thought a lot about how to taxonomize his parents and still couldn’t come to a conclusion by the time he landed back on Earth. ‘Political opportunists’ was too harsh, so was ‘loyalty traders’. Yet ‘full-hearted anti-imperialists’ was far too kind. So, where did that leave them?
They had spent their entire lives organizing protests and publishing anti-imperialist rhetoric in Bagamoyo, the site of the largest Chinese-owned port in Africa, and their relative success had made them quite notorious to the Chinese government. Notoriety of their kind, it just so happened, was also exactly what translated into fame and fortune in the eyes of the western powers. When he was sixteen, they began traveling. Not to rally revolutionaries or to hide from intelligence agents, but to shake pale hands and make English speeches denouncing Chinese imperialism. Very important that Chinese was always the adjective used to modify imperialism, as his parents were reminded on a daily basis. Because, make no mistake, even colonization had good and bad types.
Jin grew up with a lot of mixed-feeling faces staring at him. Like his parents, he had a certain fervor. But in their words, “The anger required proper channels.” Words which had subtext. As in, use them to topple cop cars and raid big colonial businesses. He knew it disappointed them that his anger had fins which stirred him in a different, less noisy direction.
He started with the big names. He spoke with Dr. Xiang from Cal Tech and Dr. Liu from Tsinghua, both of whom solemnly rebuffed his attempts at negotiating funding. He wasn’t disheartened though, not even when Dr. Xiang tilted his head back and yawned after reading his proposal. His exceptionally large Adam’s apple moving up and down his narrow neck.
Dr. Liu was slightly more sympathetic, yet still firmly rejected him. He sat swallowed up by his chair and shook his head in a cartoonish way, wide lips curled so far downward it made a rainbow.
He did, however, introduce him to another professor who specialized in topics of off-world colonization, Dr. Effia Markwei. “But, it’s the University of Ghana,” he said, his Mandarin carrying a heavy southern accent. “I don’t know how much you like being around black people.”
“I grew up in Tanzania,” Jin replied.
“Oh,” he said, clearly surprised. He scanned Jin’s face – the phoenix eyes and straight black hair – and for a brief moment, seemed to have trouble grafting him onto that particular backdrop. “I had no idea.”
Dr. Markwei accepted his proposal and in her flawless British English, expressed interest in his peculiar family history. “They’re retired now,” Jin added at the end of a somewhat extensive explanation “They live in Seattle. My mom writes internet novels in her spare time and my father reads them.”
That was when an obvious yet unspoken truth bubbled to the surface. His parents had fought for what was supposedly a righteous cause and undoubtedly faced certain risks. Yet, they ended up rich and well-connected to government officials and retired back inside the heart of an empire. Not the empire they sought to topple, but an empire nevertheless. An irony that couldn’t have escaped the professor.
“It’s just a job, like a cashier or a businessman,” father used to say. “We were never in it for money, of course. And ultimately, we did do many good things.”
“We needed to retire at some point too,” mother added. “Don’t we also deserve happiness?”
The little bot had stopped bumping into walls. Initially, it seemed unable to decipher the visual data collected from the camera, preferring the motion sensors that had been removed instead. Gradually, however, it familiarized itself with its surroundings using the new methodology.
Abduction is not terrorism, nor violent resistance, but an inevitable component in a cycle of vicious reproduction. Jin typed the words, then deleted them. They felt too close to what California had said to him.
The timer chimed and Jin grabbed his toolkit. He installed a speech system and downloaded several voice samples into it. The next upgrade would be when he installed a proper frame. Choosing the right form was a complicated decision. There was the classic bipedal variation. Then the bulky, tank-like frame of the settlers on Europa. The Formicidae.
He decided on a human one in the end. That way, the little bot could at least pass for Martian. He truly wanted to give it the frame it was meant to have, but couldn’t bear the thought of how they’d have to live.
A snake eating its own tail.
It took two weeks for the Formicidae’s impatience to become full-fledged wariness. Eventually, the signal to their computers inside the compound disappeared, which proved their suspicions. It seemed that his parents’ well-placed connections had located him. After that, California frequently returned to the compound with an air of uncertainty about them. They’d gaze at Jin, the cameras zoomed all the way in as if to capture, to preserve, a memory.
Jin watched the little bot skitter and slowly grew attached. It bumped into him from time to time and California came to give it updates, but nothing major enough to change it. There were still a few months before its next big update, but he knew he wouldn’t be here long enough to witness it. Either the money would come and he’d be released, or he’d be rescued, or, well, he didn’t quite know what the Formicidae would do. He tried to steer clear of the worst-case scenarios.
“Why the increments?” he asked. “Why not just do it all at once?”
“I grew up on Mars, flesh and bone, inside a bio-dome,” California said. “Got here after a felony conviction. At least that’s what my memories tell me, granted it wasn’t downloaded into my head. That was a long time ago, but I still remember the growing up. The stages. Learning to walk, riding a bike for the first time, learning the meaning of words. I’d like-” they paused right before saying the little bot’s name. “I’d like Junior to experience a little of that too, even if they won’t remember anything without the wetware. It’s more for me than it is for them, I suppose.”
“The money will come,” Jin said.
“No, it won’t,” they said. “You don’t lie very well.” California scanned the room to make sure no one else was there. “You’re saying that so we won’t kill you.”
Jin said nothing.
“It is in our interests to do so,” said California. “We’d ignite our methane pouches and die martyrs.”
“Aren’t you all backed up somewhere?”
“Yes, but they don’t make offspring with the proper wetware anymore, remember? We get too smart otherwise and think up all sorts of crazy ideas,” they said. “So, the backups are no use to us.”
“What will happen to Junior?”
A brief silence, and Jin understood the problem. Which, incidentally, was also the reason why the sheds weren’t already engulfed in flames.
“You promise your parents have the amount?” California said after some time.
He nodded. “It’s a large amount, but by no means extraordinary by Terran standards.”
“If I snuck you out, would you make sure Junior gets it?”
The explosion happened when he had already trekked so far away that he could no longer see the outlines of the sheds behind him. It was a muffled sound through his suit, like overheated meat inside a microwave. As soon as it happened, he could hear the whirling of sirens and the blaring of klaxons as the police descended upon the place he’d left. He continued on, walking along Kraken Mare toward the loudest, closest sound.
They found him when the oxygen inside his suit was nearly depleted. They tried to take the little bot from him in his nitrogen induced drowsiness, but he clutched them to his chest and wouldn’t let go. He insisted that they belonged to him and that no one was allowed to get their filthy, metallic hands on what was rightfully his.
Dr. Markwei congratulated him on a successful thesis defense, but it was a congratulations filled with an unspoken anxiety. Many of his committee members had held back difficult questions on account of what he had been through, which had made the success feel far less rewarding than it should. It seemed unfair. He had done just as much work as anyone else in his research, more than most in all reality, yet he couldn’t enjoy the same level of accomplishment as everyone else.
They did give him rewrites though, which Jin felt were necessary.
He was still working on them, but no matter what he did, the thesis continued to feel incomplete. And it wouldn’t be complete until the time was up on the little bot. Until he’d finally installed what he had promised California. When that day came, Jin would finally be finished.
As he wrote he thought about why he had so steadfastly maintained his promise to California. He certainly had no incentive to do so, and whatever power the Formicidae held over him ended when he had walked away from the makeshift settlement. His parents, professors, friends, and therapists (especially therapists) all insisted that he had Stockholm Syndrome, and for a while, he really tried to convince himself to believe it.
They allowed him to continue upgrading the little bot and even gave him the wetware he needed for free. The condition was, however, that it would be returned to Titan upon completion to join the harvesting crews.
“A good way to work through the trauma,” his therapist said. “Perhaps once it’s complete, you can begin to heal.”
However, as he typed away on another smog-filled night whose mists carried a certain oily taste, the wetware hooked up and ready to go, he decided that they were wrong. He looked at the timer on the little bot and realized that it wasn’t trauma spurring him, and it certainly wasn’t the result of some arbitrarily named psychological phenomenon.
This, as with so many things when it came to the subject of the colonies, had to do with reproduction. California was willing to do everything for their child, like any good parent would. Didn’t it make sense for him to do the same?
By children, he didn’t mean the little bot, Junior, of course. They were California’s child. He was a fleshy family friend, or a friendly uncle at best.
No. His child had existed well before that. Before he was born, even. Before his parents too, his grandparents. In a way, he had been given this responsibility the first time his cries rang through the hospital, tagging onto him like his name by his fertile planet.
In that moment, he decided that maybe he always knew there was no interviewee, that he ignored all the warnings. Not due to some misguided intellectual curiosity, but because it was the only way he could carry out his responsibilities to the things he’d created.
A one-way trip to Mars bought under his name, and the information uploaded onto the wetware. He compiled everything the little bot needed to know about their family history and the events that surrounded their birth into several documents, and uploaded them as well. With that done, he linked up all the other upgrades to the wetware and installed it into the human frame made of synthetic, pressurized polymer.
Still a few days on the timer before the final upgrade, but the little bot would have to grow up a little earlier than their parent wanted. As soon as they came online, their cameras whirling with agency for the first time, Jin handed them the fake passport and documents.
“There’s a taxi downstairs. It’ll take you to a spaceport in Beijing,” he said. “Mars is the best first step. From what I’ve heard, document forgers there are top notch.”
For a second, their synthetic hands lingered over his as they reached for the documents. Then they were out the door.
Tim Yu’s last name sounds exactly like “fish” in Chinese, which is great since he is a huge fan of oceans and marine life. And space. Space is kind of an ocean too. He lives in Vancouver, Canada with his fiancée and their plant babies.