|Art by Desirina Boskovich|
"Nini" by Yukimi Ogawa (6626 words)
The story opens aboard a space station of the discarded, humans who have been "volunteered" by their families to live out their lives being cared for by medical AIs. Only the AIs don't really like putting up with the constant complaints of the humans, the ways that humans pull away from the machines because they are inhuman, because they are seen as cold and uncaring. So the machines made Nini, a partly-organic machine AI that is supposed to deal with the humans, who is supposed to put them at ease because it (Nini's choice of pronoun) more closely resembles a human. And yet they still don't really value it. Because Nini, too, doesn't much like it's job, and doesn't like the ways that it is made to interact with either the medical AIs or the humans. And then one day Nini chokes on a mochi, and an old construction robot, the last of its kind on the station, saves it and shows it a forgotten well where a forgotten god lives and blesses the water there to be especially beneficial.
And the story is all about comfort and about being cast aside. The humans, the machines, Nini itself, and the robot and god it befriends, have all been forgotten. They've all be discarded. And only Nini tries to bring everyone together, tries to bridge the gaps that keep people apart. As someone who can walk through the human world and the world of AI, Nini is in a unique position to try and help everyone, because there are huge benefits if they would just work together, if the humans could learn to respect robots and gods, and the robots would learn to respect humans. But the story shows how this can fall apart, the fragility of egos in this situation, where no one wants to truly admit that they've been abandoned. It becomes a sort of rewriting of reality, of framing it in such a way that seems more comforting, more bearable. And in that rewriting people have a tendency to avoid hard decisions and to avoid reaching out in empathy. And the result is...well, nothing good.
Because, ultimately, the story is something of a horror. Though it's not exactly spooky going in, coming out it is appropriately chilling, showing just where this can lead, how being discarded is not a neutral action, how it invites change. Without that original purpose, what has been discarded needs to adapt, needs to fit into a new role, one that might be completely different than how it started. It's a story in some ways about how hungry ghosts are created, how some places become unsafe, infused with something that's dangerous not because it was made to be so, but because it had to become so in order to survive. How, in absence of empathy, other drives grow instead. Like hunger. And it's an interesting and moody piece that really hits with its closing lines. A fantastic read!