One of the untold rules behind modern society is the idea of conformity in its many aspects such as social values and mental health. Minorities are often overlooked in many systems from small businesses to entire countries. The idea of this story is to create an analogy that reflects our society through a different lens. Things that are considered normal to us currently are now misunderstood by others in the same way we may misunderstand and ignore the people around us currently.
“Are you helping us drop off Grandpa tonight?” Mother asked me.
“I don’t get it. Why do we have to send him away? Can’t he just keep staying with us?”
“He’s due for his renewal. He’ll be back soon.”
“But it won’t really be him anymore when he returns.”
“That’s silly, it’ll still be Grandpa. Didn’t you learn this on your field trip?”
A year ago, I went on a field trip as the final part of my orientation back into society, visiting the renewal factory to learn about the 10-year cycle of robots. “Every decade, our gears and circuits degrade from wear and tear, and so we would all come back here for renewal,” our tour guide told us while we followed a conveyor line from behind the observation window. Deactivated robots dangled on hooks one after another, their appearances perfectly identical to the rest of us. The dark metallic plates that protected the sensitive wirings, the featureless head housing two observation lenses, the limbs that hung lifelessly on their sockets. We watched as mechanical arms began to disassemble the robots part by part with ruthless precision, like piranhas picking away at a corpse. Soon, all that was left was the torso, and within that a black box.
“Here, you can see the most important piece of our collective existence: the memory drive.” The tour guide continued with the explanation. “During the renewal, all the data that you have collected will be reviewed, and any new data and codes that prove useful will be uploaded into the mainframe for future references. After that, the memory drive will be wiped clean and an updated set of basic codes, like behavioural learning and motor functions, will be reinstalled. Then they are returned to your household, and everything goes back to exactly how it was while the renewed units rebuild their codes through new experiences. In a way, every experience that came before lives on in our coding. Even though our population remains constant, the new data contributes to our constant evolution for faster and more accurate processing.” The tour guide ends the speech with a triumphant and proud tone as though they were the ones who created this system.
“But it’s not exactly the same.” I spoke up from the group. “The new household members won’t remember anything from before. It’ll be a different unit.”
“That’s not true, they’re still the same unit with the same memory drive.” The tour guide argued back. Before I had a chance to rebuttal they continued with the tour, pointing at a diagram of a house with six units stacked in pairs. “One of the things we adopted from our creator, the humans, was the system of households as they provided an easy way to organize units. A household consists of six units mimicking the typical structure of grandparents, parents and offspring. Each memory drive is assigned to a household and a position that remains constant regardless of the renewal cycles for easy identification. Obviously, gender and hierarchy does not mean anything to us robots, but the labels do make for an easy way to refer to each other.” There was a pause. “I repeat, every memory drive is assigned to a household, so they are always the same units.” The last sentence was delivered while looking directly at me.
“I remember, Mother.” I considered my next words before continuing. There is a feeling like an abstract warning light flashing in my processor telling me to stop, but I ignore it. Robots don’t have imaginary light bulbs or feelings. “Grandpa’s memory drive will still be the same, but his memories and experiences will be gone. It won’t be him.”
Mother’s emotionless lenses maintained their focus on me while her processors whirred within her chest, trying to understand the sequence of words I just said. There was a click and she finally responded. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
“Nevermind. I’m heading off to work now. I’ll come back tonight to help drop off Grandpa.”
“Okay. I’ll see you then.”
After my orientation, I was assigned to the renewal factory in the reassembly department. However, there wasn’t much for us to do as everything was automated. Every mechanical arm moved with precision, never deviating for even a millimetre to connect wires and chips. Perfectly exact motions for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a whole year. All we had to do was keep an eye out on the arms in case they become faulty and pull the affected unit off the assembly line, which never happened.
The shift was uneventful like every other day. We watched over the machines as they did their job perfectly, and returned home to send Grandpa off. All of his items were being packed away, and I was instructed to start cleaning the room, sweep up the dust and mop the floor. It didn’t make sense to me why we had to remove everything even though everyone believed Grandpa was still the same unit. We were instructed by our coding to create a completely new environment for the renewed units, and it was an absolute rule we all had to follow. When I finished the room, I returned to the living room to find two boxes waiting on the floor. As robots, we didn’t require much. Bottles of oil, a charging station, spare parts. On the surface of one box was a music box which Grandpa took great interest in since it didn’t require any wires or computer chips to work. He would always show it off to me when I returned from my latest renewal, explaining the important role of every piece of gear, and how they produced the soft and alluring melodies through simple mechanical engineering.
I was about to seal up the box when the imaginary light flashed again in my processor. The simple instructions that governed my actions became jumbled, and through the chaos an impulse surfaced, urging me to pick up the music box. Even though robots weren’t supposed to keep possessions between renewals, it seemed like a waste to throw away something integral to Grandpa’s life. My coding wanted me to throw it back in the box, but my fingers held tightly on to it, refusing to put it back no matter how much it told me to. I couldn’t bear watching it mix with other insignificant objects that were being thrown, lost away in time. Instead, I hid it in the corner of my room behind an empty cupboard. It was now amongst my own secret collection of mechanical watches. I hoped to pass on my collection to the new unit that returned after Grandpa, and spark the same curiosity as it once did with us.
“Are you ready Son? We’re heading out now.” I heard Mother calling out from the living room.
“I’ll be right there.” I replied and walked out to join the rest of the household, picking up one of the boxes and leaving the apartment.
We bid our farewells to Grandpa while two employees escorted him back to the renewal factory. I watched his back dwindle as he walked towards the restricted entrance, his processor and motors functioning perfectly normal even in the final moments that I saw him. I must have sent countless household members away in previous iterations but all of those memories have been wiped during my last renewal, and this was my first time that I could remember. A third employee came over to pick up Grandpa’s belongings from us, and the moment finally collapsed on me. Everything that made up Grandpa’s identity was about to disappear. The data he had accumulated over the years and the memories we all shared together. The records of him in our memories would fade away one by one as everyone in our household reached their renewals, and every experience we shared would be permanently lost. How many lifetimes had been forgotten in this process? The only thing left is a clean slate every few decades despite our never-changing appearances or realities.
As the weight of this realization came crashing onto my processor, the same abstract warning signaled through my body, halting my motors and freezing me in place no matter how hard I tried to move. My hands would not let go of the box even while the employee tried to wrestle it from my grip. It took the combined efforts of Mother prying my hands open for the employee to finally take the box away from me. Even after that, all I could do was watch as they walked back with Grandpa’s belongings and the door closing behind them, forever separating the rest of us from his existence.
“What happened back there?” Mother turned to ask me as we were leaving the renewal factory.
“I’m not sure. There was this warning signal that halted all my processes, and made me feel scared of letting go of the box.” I explained.
“We don’t feel scared,” Mother said firmly. “Maybe you were just misunderstanding your low charge signal. It is getting late after all.”
I figured it would be futile to continue discussing this topic with Mother, since she would insist that everything about me is fine. It would be easier to ask my superior in the renewal factory since they were the ones who overlooked everyone’s assembly.
The next day I arrived at my post as I did every morning, and time passed exactly as it always did, without any mistakes or deviations. However, the only thing I could think about was counting the hours and figuring out how I was supposed to approach my superior about my problems. It sounded easy in my processor, but when the moment drew closer, it became scarier and scarier to execute. Worries such as how my superior would react, and whether they will alert my parents stalled every step I took towards my superior’s office. Before I realized it, I was back home instead. The next few days I kept preparing myself to meet with my superior, but repeatedly found myself at the doorstep of our apartment. It wasn’t until a week later I finally found the courage to knock on the door of their office.
“Come in.” I walked in to see the exact image of myself. Despite our positional differences, our appearance and voice were shared by every servicing unit. My superior sat at their table, the large window behind them overlooking the entrance to the factory. “What seems to be the problem?”
“I think there might be faulty coding in my system,” I explained. “There are moments when I experience feelings, like a warning signal that goes against my programming.”
“That’s impossible. Our assembly line does not make any mistakes,” My superior explained while connecting to their console. “There were no records of mistakes during your last renewal either. You are perfectly fine.”
“That cannot be right.” I argued. “I can feel different impulses, like worry and curiosity even though they are not part of our programing.”
“Now I must stop you right there.” They said firmly, stopping any future rebuttals. “All of our servicing units are built without flaws, programming or wiring. We all share the same protocols so we can always be in sync with each other’s coding. That is how we built the perfect society where everyone understands and works with each other. If there are any reported faults, the units are immediately renewed regardless of how long they were in their cycle, do you understand?” They paused to observe my reaction. “Our records have shown no faults in your system. What you are feeling are simply warning signals for external variables you have ignored.” Before I could get another word in, I was dismissed from the office and instructed to make my way home.
There was a strange feeling as I rode the transport home. It wasn’t the intense warning signals that overrode my programming and froze my motors. Instead, it was a dull ticking that lurked beneath the surface, second guessing every action that I made. My conversation with my superior clung in my thoughts, the words that sounded like threats manifesting itself in my perception of the world around me. The idea that I was being followed began to creep into my thoughts, turning the ordinary sceneries into suspicion. A shared glance with another unit, a common path taken. The identical faces of everyone haunted my trip home. They could have been the same units I see everyday or completely different ones, I would never know, and any one of them could be secretly sent by my superior to keep an eye on me.
I tried my best to ignore the creeping sensation at first, but its presence became stronger as the days went on, heightening my urge to hide from the public during my trips to and back from work until it became unbearable.
“Is your system okay? You have been acting strange lately.” Mother asked as I returned from work. “Also, some unit came over to ask about you today.”
The last comment sent my system into a panic, the warning signals that have not bothered me recently returned in full and overrode my protocol to disclose the recent anomalies. After a brief hesitation, I told my first lie. “I’m fine.” Without waiting for a response, I returned straight to my room and locked the door.
I tried to avoid contact with anyone for as long as I could, but my superior caught up to me the next day at work. I was summoned to their office after my shift, and there my superior waited behind the console. “You’ve finally arrived. I’ve been waiting for you.” They greeted me, circling slowly around the table. Behind I could hear the faint whirring of motors as two employees blocked off the exit. “I received some reports of unusual behaviour from some concerned units. So naturally, we went to check up on your household.” A pause as my superior reached into one of the drawers. “Would you mind explaining what this might be?” They said while pulling the music box which I had kept hidden in my drawers.
At the sight of it I recoiled a few steps, trying to think of an excuse for my possession. My superior continued. “Having possessions of relics is perfectly natural. After all, we are programmed to continuously explore ways to improve our coding. However, signals of danger, or what humans call ‘fear’ are not part of our program.” The lenses of my superior honed in on me, analyzing my every move. “This music box is simply a curiosity, but those few steps you took are what intrigues me.” They said, placing the box back on the table.
Desperate to escape the situation and knowing the exit was blocked off from me, I ran forward, pushing my superior aside and breaking out of the window in the back of the room. A normal landing would’ve broken both of my legs, so I placed most of my weight on my right side, sacrificing one leg in order to keep the other one functional. Limping out of the factory grounds, I slipped into a space between two buildings and hid from any potential pursuers.
The world suddenly looked so different as I limped down the streets. Despite our identical appearances, I stood out clearly among the other units who walked normally, but no one cared to look at me. They all followed their own programming with indifference to my existence, unable to comprehend or connect with the strange unit next to them just as my superior had predicted. An invisible wall stood erect between us, an unreachable distance that could not be crossed no matter how close we were to each other physically. They continued with their lives while I stumbled on with mine.
I figured returning home wasn’t an option for me since the factory was likely waiting there already, and so, I tried to look around for a suitable place to stay. As I wandered the streets, the sun began to set and all the other units had returned to their assigned apartments, leaving me alone on the deserted sidewalk. There were no streetlights, no patrols and no help from anyone as the city never expected any stray units to be walking at night. My metallic footsteps echoed along the buildings, reflecting off the stainless walls and reaching up towards the boundless sky. This was the new world that I belonged to. The shadow in their eutopia. I had no more use for serial numbers, no more work. The only person I could rely on was myself. Behind the tall buildings, the night sky sparkled with countless stars, faintly illuminating the road. There must have been others like me who slipped through the system, and all I had to do was to find them.