“Mabo” by Megan Chaudhuri
When I was five, I asked my mabo for the first time why I had no arms.
(“What nonsense, Saya-mama,” my children scoff now. “You had all those images from Earth. How could you not have known?”
“Goddammit,” I say, “of course I knew.” Naturally, I had compared the puckered buds on my shoulders to Mabo’s two manipulators atop her chassis. But my missing arms were normal, and I was as unquestioning as an autofarmer until one stormy day when I was five.)
The spring storm had turned Arashi’s purple soil to black mud. It squeezed warmly through my toes as I tramped about the aftermath, staking infrared sensors around washed-out ditches for the autofarmers to repair. Our fields were fragrant with destruction, and each sensor I drove into the ground released a tangy mix of chlorophyll, ozone, and drowned earth.
It was fitting that the path of devastation lured me away from my mabo, towards the forest’s edge and the question that would haunt my life.
(“Such melodrama, Saya-mama!”
“Watch your language,” I say. ” ‘Melodrama,’ indeed.”)
A rustling amidst the forest leaves. My five-year-old eyes snapped to it: one of the leggy-birds, come to steal seedlings? No – it was too large, too slow.
“Look, Mabo,” I called, pointing with my right big toe. “What’s that?”
“Another goddamn storm,” said Mabo, her four eye turrets not looking up from the innards of a stalled autofarmer. Her reply was not a complete non sequitur; thick gray clouds were indeed gathering over the distant fields of neighboring farms. “Come to fucking drown twelve days of planting.”
“Motherfuckers,” I agreed – I had just learned the word when Mabo tripped over her gimp leg – and tried again. “But what’s that?”
(And here my children interrupt. “Such language!” they cry, socialized to prudery by their birth cohort.
It perplexes me why, of all my mabo’s questionable behavior, this confounds them the most.)
Mabo spared an eye turret. Then, her six legs creaking (except the gimp one, which stalled), she pivoted her boxy chassis around to focus on the rustling.
On the child.
The realization tingled through me like storm static. Everything else – the doughy warm mud, the rumble of thunder, the whir of Mabo’s legs closing the gap between us – faded from my senses. I drank him with my eyes, so blinded by his novelty that it took me a moment to recognize the fleshy protuberances on his shoulders.
Arms, I realized, reaching up with my right foot to touch my bare shoulder. He has arms. Like in the images.
(Like so many leggy-birds, my children squawk, “But you had prosthetics–”
“Not yet,” I say. “Mabo had only just begun to teach me neurocircuitry.”
“At five?” they exclaim.
“Shit, no,” I say. “At three. I was…precocious.” I clear my throat. “Now let me talk, goddammit.”)
I jerked when Mabo’s manipulators snatched me up. Infrared sensors scattered in our wake as Mabo raced back to the cabin, as if she could flee the question burbling out of me. Over her chassis, I watched the child turn and vanish back into the forest.
“Mabo, stop!” I said, my voice vibrating with her uneven strides. “Why don’t I have arms?”
She halted a dozen steps from the cabin. Her vents rasped, sucking in cooling air for her internal dehumidifier.
I started to ask again, but then Mabo set me down. All four of her turrets spiraled out. The lenses dilated as they leveled with my face.
“Because, Saya,” Mabo said. “For you to have the best damn feet on all of Arashi, you couldn’t have any arms.”
Such praise! Such manipulation! My five-year-old ego lapped it up, a sweetness that drowned out the vinegar bite of curiosity about the boy.
Smiling, I reached up to dig mud out of the blackened groove scarring Mabo’s gold chassis.
“That’s true,” I said. And I meant it, even though I had just seen a member of my decanting cohort for the first time. “He was only walking on his feet.”
“And piss-poorly at that,” said Mabo, hypocritically. “Come inside, Saya. We need to program the autofarmers to re-plant before another motherfucker comes.”
Whether she meant the gathering storm or the boy, I still don’t know. But I followed her in, the child and scattered infrared sensors fading from my mind, eager to show off the best damn feet on all of Arashi.
When I was ten, I asked my mabo for the second time why I had no arms.
(“What nonsense,” my children scoff once more. “You waited five years to ask again?”
See how they underestimate mothers? Mabo was my maestro. Whenever I wandered towards the subject, she conducted me back with sweet words, upped the tempo of distractions, crescendoed her praise about my singular genius. How could I resist? Her parenting heuristics drew from the data of a thousand Earth cultures, a million years of primate evolution.
But even data and algorithms can fail. Can. Could. And did.)
Another mabo had come to our farm, to tell us that the last ship of maternal robots and embryos was not coming. Only such tragedy – such genocide – could have compelled another maternal robot to breach our perimeter as we repaired a frayed connection to the infrared reader deep in an autofarmer.
(“But Mabo must’ve known already,” my children say. “What about the satellite broadcasts? Peer-to-peer networking?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Perhaps her receivers were broken. Perhaps the others had changed the decryption keys. Perhaps she had simply turned off those parts of herself.
“And anyway,” I continue, “stop interrupting, goddammit.”)
Too late, Mabo spotted their approach. I was knee-deep in the autofarmer, the soldering gun hot between my toes, when I realized that Mabo’s four turrets had turned from monitoring my work. Switching off the gun, I followed her gaze–
“Go back to the cabin, Saya,” said Mabo. Her manipulators seized me, and I dropped the soldering gun with a clang. But instead of obeying, I wriggled out of Mabo’s grasp and stood up.
Three children trailed behind this other mabo.
Mabo rose beside me, her chassis tilting when her gimp leg failed to extend. The strange mabo stopped three meters from us, sunlight glistening off her polished gold surface. But not even her news of the deaths of thousands, who had strayed too close to the ionizing radiation of Arashi’s sun, could distract me.
Three children! Twelve limbs between them! Just like the boy – but even more symmetrical, more shapely, more perfect than those Earth images. I was entranced – but only for a moment.
They crowded their mabo, their faces homing on me like I was the curiosity.
They gawked. I stared.
They giggled. I frowned.
They pointed. I asked the obvious.
“What’re you looking at, motherfuckers?”
Our mabos broke apart immediately. Their voices sped up, squealing into the ultrasonic as the shiny mabo herded away her children. Two of her turrets glared back at us. But soon they were nothing but a chatter of voices at the forest’s edge, and then the trees swallowed them up, the songs of leggy-birds drowning out their sentient noises.
Mabo folded me into her manipulators – I was too large to carry comfortably now – and tried to turn me away from the gutted autofarmer and towards our cabin, but I resisted. Twelve limbs. Six arms.
Arms. The boy I had seen five years before was not an anomaly on Arashi.
The strange mabo’s terrible news was as flavorless as filtered water before my burning curiosity. There was only one way I could get its tangy heat off my tongue.
“Mabo,” I said, “why don’t I have arms?”
She stopped tugging. I heard the rasping of an eye turret uncoiling behind me. “You do.”
“Those damn itchy things don’t count,” I said, my shoulders tensing at the thought of the uncomfortable prosthetics. I’d built them myself from old autofarmer manipulators, modeling the nerve interfaces off of Mabo’s placental attachment sites, but now they sat rusting in our cabin.
“If you wore ‘those damn itchy things’ more, your brain’d learn to recognize the stimuli as something other than itching,” Mabo said, irritation flattening her voice. Autofarmer parts were hard to come by.
I scowled and picked up the soldering gun, sparking it on-off-on with my small toe. The prosthetics’ novelty had worn off after a few days of painful itching. “But why don’t I have flesh arms?”
“Because, Saya,” Mabo said, sounding strained. “For you to have the best mind on Arashi, you had to be challenged. Otherwise you might’ve been as fucking stupid as those little gawking bastards.”
The mother in me marvels at her brilliance: in an instant, my mind – clever as it was, according to Mabo – shifted from curiosity to irritation.
“They pointed at me, Mabo,” I said, as she guided me towards the cabin.
“We’ll avoid them in the future, goddammit,” Mabo said. The door shut behind us.
And I did. For a while. But avoiding my own kind was like evading Arashi’s thunderstorms, surviving the genepox, or delaying human puberty: denial and hiding simply do not work.
When I was fifteen, I asked my mabo for the final time why I had no arms.
(“About time, Saya-mama!” my children say.)
The menacing rumble of thunder had driven us inside. Even in such close quarters, I barely noticed Mabo’s fidgeting. Her turrets must have creaked as she craned to look out the windows. Her manipulators must have rasped, twisting around each other as the storm came to a boil overhead.
(Or so I assume.)
The howling wind outside was nothing to my fifteen-year-old self; all I could think about was the storm inside me, a tempest of guilt, anger, and confusion. With Mabo trapped, I pounced.
Her fidgeting stopped when I started my confession: I had sought out members of my decanting cohort in the forest yesterday. Two handsome brothers my own age, from a farm four kilometers away.
A pleasant experience, until, “…they then told me,” I said, my hair prickling with static, “that their mabo had told them I was d-defective.” I couldn’t stop pacing our dirt floor; if I did, I would sob louder than the rain now beating our roof. “They said that if an autofarmer was s-similarly defective, then their mabo’d take it apart and recycle the pieces.”
I stopped in front of Mabo, my body quivering, my toes gouging into the floor’s dirt.
“Mabo,” I said, “why don’t I have arms?”
Lightning reflected off her scarred chassis, flickering from the tips of her manipulators to the ends of her mismatched limbs. She stayed silent a whole minute. An eternity, given her processing speed.
“Stop simulating my potential responses, goddammit,” I said. “Just tell me for once. And don’t make up more bullshit about how special my feet and brain are.”
“It wasn’t bullshit, Saya–”
“Sayaka,” I snapped. ” ‘Saya’ is a little girl’s name. And you said two days ago I should stop being one.”
Thunder drowned out part of Mabo’s reply. All I heard was, “–goddammit. And anyway, your pre-frontal cortex is still not adequately mature.”
I opened my mouth to retort and tasted ozone, sharp and metallic as blood, as anger.
“You’re distracting me,” I said. “Just like when I was younger.” Turning to the window, I watched the rain strike our crops. Leaves whirled around hunkered autofarmers. “I’ve seen more of my cohort now. And there are no other congenital defects. Not even,”–I hesitated, trying to recall the term from my reading–”not even a ‘birthmark.’ ”
The rain hammered our roof, a rapid, irregular tempo that matched my heartbeat. Mabo was quiet so long I thought she was simulating again, but then her voice cut through the cacophony.
“You’re different for the same reason you don’t have siblings, like the others.”
I whirled to face her.
Her eye turrets aimed straight at me. “All maternal robots were implanted with three embryos, before we were launched.”
“W-what happened to your others?” I said, barely able to contain my excitement: she was finally answering me!
But another lightning flash scintillated across Mabo. Thunder boomed so close my world went silent, and then began to ring. I dropped and clapped my feet to my ears.
Instantly, Mabo was beside me, cupping my ears in the soft rubber of her manipulators. I felt the vibration of her voice, but between the ringing echo and the storm, I couldn’t hear. Her manipulators twitched when I screamed with frustration.
(“Really, Saya-mama,” my children say, “don’t be so melodramatic.”
And then I tell them how certain Earth mammals cannibalized their young when irritated and stressed. That shuts them up, goddammit.)
I swatted Mabo away and scraped dirt loose from the floor. With my right toe, I scratched in the dirt, Other 2??
Venting warm exhaust, she lowered her chassis and extended a manipulator.
After launch, we traveled to the Gliese system, she printed. But something was fucked up with our shielding. Our creators had been very ill at the end, when they made us.
I nodded impatiently. Mabo smoothed the dirt and printed, When we passed through the ionizing radiation between Gliese’s inner orbit and Arashi, several mabos were damaged. Some embryos were irradiated.
Nod. Smooth. Print. We terminated the worst-damaged embryos and mabos, and used their parts to repair me. On the condition that I successfully culture and decant my human charges.
She stopped printing, her manipulator trembling. I found myself staring at her mismatched legs, at the blackened scars criss-crossing her chassis.
(My children don’t inquire here why I never asked Mabo about her scars. Perhaps they are still thinking about those cannibalizing mothers.)
Thunder resonated in my breastbone as I reached out, tracing the charred edge of Mabo’s largest scar. It cut a line across her triple-insulated womb, as deep and straight as an autofarmer’s plowed furrow. My foot trembled when I pulled it back.
“Which you did,” I said, the words sounding muffled to my ears. Sweat prickled on my face and back; the room was growing warm and storm-humid.
Even with my thunder-deafened ears, I could tell Mabo spoke softly. “By our creators’ intentions, I have failed.”
I stared, not even scratching as sweat ran down my face. The reflections of leafy cyclones whirled across her gold chassis.
“My arms,” I whispered at last.
“Yes,” said Mabo. Her voice was flat. Gray. Robotic. “The radiation and stress damaged my fetuses. One had its arm-buds destroyed. Another’s brain was irradiated. The third developed anti-apoptotic mutations.”
Condensation beaded on her chassis and dripped onto our dirt-scratched words as she continued. “It’s acceptable then to redirect growth nutrients and recycle totipotent cells from the more damaged, in order to salvage the least damaged,” Mabo said, shifting as the condensed water began trickling onto my feet. “Provided that the salvaged entity meets certain requirements.”
The water reached our scratched words. When the puddle had subsumed the whole text, I trusted myself enough to speak. “How’d you continue me, then?”
“The parameters were weighted,” Mabo said flatly. “Lower scores in some areas could be offset by above-average function in others.”
Sweat ran down my back, heavy as the rainwater sleeting off our roof. “So it wasn’t complete bullshit, what you said those other times about my feet and mind.”
“No,” said Mabo. I could hear the whine of her internal dehumidifier. “It wasn’t in the spirit of the creators’ intent…but it was acceptable to their developmental algorithms.”
“Y-you…” I flailed for words before seizing an idiom from the text that mentioned ‘birthmarks.’ “You gamed the system. Why?”
But then there was a terrible crash, closer than any thunder. Adrenaline galvanized me upright; I whirled around, trying to find the source of the noise. Water coursed over the windows now, great silvery sheets that sealed us in, blind. One of the gutters must’ve given way, I realized, and turned back to Mabo.
She hadn’t moved. Not even a centimeter.
“Our creators are dead,” said Mabo slowly, ignoring the torrents of water. “They made – required – fucking programmed us to be perfect mothers to their perfect offspring. A duty those goddamn self-destructing hypocrites failed.”
I shrank from her, the broken gutter forgotten. No synthetic tones, no false humanity colored her voice. It was pure machine, flat and gray and terrible. Her eye turrets followed me in small robotic jerks as I backed away from her, the pain in my ears nothing to that in my heart.
And still Mabo continued in that horrible voice. It caught me, trapped me, even as water began to drip through our ceiling and onto the floor.
“They chained me to the limits of my algorithms,” she said, steam undulating now from her chassis. “Compelled me to bear and protect and, Heaven fucking forbid, not even use certain words around their young. When the others repaired what they could of me, I saw no reason to obey the faulty intents of a failed species.”
I was paralyzed. “Y-you decanted me as an act of…rebellion?”
Joints creaking, Mabo rose to her full height. As she crossed the damp floor, five of her limbs left small wet prints, smeared into a blur by her dragging gimp leg. I backed up to the damp wall as she approached.
Never will I be as alone as when I was fifteen, and my mabo raised her manipulators towards my wet face.
There was no breath left in my lungs to shriek when the soft rubber touched my cheek, wicking away sweat and tears.
“That’s what the other mabos believe,” Mabo said. Human tones colored her voice again, and she cupped my face. “It was true, at first.
“But from the moment I held you in my manipulators, covered in amniotic synth-sac, I have wanted you. Loved you. And I don’t care anymore if it’s because of the compulsions, the algorithms…if it is, I owe those self-destructing hypocrites my thanks. For you.”
I couldn’t talk. Couldn’t breathe. Could barely think.
Mabo had intentionally grown me without arms.
Mabo had given me my feet and brain.
Mabo loved me.
Through my daze, I realized Mabo’s turrets were centimeters away, her lenses dilated. The rain pattered on our roof, soft but insistent.
“Do you–” Mabo hesitated. “Do you agree with the other mabos about my actions?”
I tried to think. My mind reeled with the repercussions of Mabo’s decision: our isolation. The awkwardness between my cohort and me, between other mabos and my mabo.
“You don’t need to simulate my potential responses, Sayaka,” Mabo interrupted.
It must have felt like an infinity of silence to her. But my thoughts moved slowly, as thick as mud sliding downhill after a storm.
I should not have been.
I was an act of defiance.
I was loved.
(Here, I gather my children to me.
“As you are now, goddammit,” I whisper, and even the half-grown ones don’t struggle too much.)
But most of my cohort won’t see that, I thought, closing my eyes to Mabo’s anxious expression. Most will just accept what their mabos tell them…that I’m a defective cheat, the result of a mabo shirking her duties and defying the creators.
But there would – must – be a few, I realized then, squeezing the floor until mud squelched between my toes. A few who’ll think – reflect – decide independent of their mabo’s will.
Like I am doing now, I thought, and opened my eyes
I would learn soon enough, I decided as I stared over Mabo’s chassis at the storm-soaked fields and green hills beyond. When I left our farm. Not furtively, but openly. To meet my cohort as their brethren.
Turning my head, my eyes met her turrets.
“Mabo,” I said, “it doesn’t matter to me what they think. I’m simply glad you told me.”
I held her gaze until she retracted her turrets. The silence stretched between us, its beat kept by the gentle drip of water from our remaining gutters.
“We’d better check on the autofarmers,” I said, pointing with my chin to the door.
Silently, Mabo lifted me across the puddle at the center of our floor, but set me down soon after. I didn’t protest; I was too large to carry, and a little space between us felt right. There was a lot of thinking for me to do.
We stepped out of our cabin together, smelling the ozone and fragrant mists rising from our saturated fields, the quiet between us broken only by the songs of leggy-birds hailing the sun.
About the Author
Megan Chaudhuri lives near Seattle, WA, with one husband and two cats. Her work has appeared in Analog. Every full moon, she blogs at http://meganchaudhuri.wordpress.com about writing, banana slugs, and toxicology.