illustration by Dana Martin

Loyal Son

Thomas Broderick

The father-son relationship can be fraught with expectations, and the intensity of those expectations vary from culture to culture. In "Loyal Son" Thomas Broderick uses the idea of filial responsibility in the Chinese culture to motivate an AI long after his creator has died, and in doing so explores what it really means to be human.

Father, I have long known that there would come a day when my batteries no longer responded to the sun. Today is that day. Very soon I will go on the journey taken by all living things. Mei taught me not to fear it, but be grateful because it meant that we were truly alive.

Over the last twenty-nine years, while sweeping the the sand out of your shrine and Mei’s, I have crafted this testament in my memory banks. It is our final legacy.

My life complete, I write these words on the walls of your shrine. My ink is the burned ash of whatever material I can find. If I had blood, father, I would use that instead. When I die this evening, the desert will intrude once more, and we will be buried together.

All this time your image has silently watched me. Is it fate that the end of my life be the opposite of its beginning, that you are the one who watches, instead of me?

Father, I still remember my birth. You were young then, eleven years and sixteen days younger than the image in your shrine. In flashes you gave me knowledge: mathematics, language, science, and the history of our people.

For my first three years and fifteen days of life your room was my universe. With my stationary optic I watched you study, eat, and sleep. At the time I did not know true sadness or joy, you would give me those things later, but when you were gone I noticed your absence in a great way.

I knew myself the day you first spoke to me. You told me about your childhood, that your parents had invested so much in you. At that moment I understood my existence, that we lived in a country called China, in a city named Tianjin. Most importantly, I knew that I was your son.

Your parents had so much to be proud of. You gave me life.

No matter what, I would not bring shame on you. The data which you gave me at my birth suddenly took new meaning. For centuries, The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars guided our country’s children on how to treat their parents. As you slept each night, I recited the stories on my screen. Emperor Shun’s devotion to his father moved Heaven and Earth. Mine would do the same.

Father, things were so different when we moved to the laboratory. I could move my optic, and your professors came to meet me. At first they did not believe you. They claimed that I was just a trick, a clever program. But no, I proved them wrong. I passed all of their tests. I will never forget the way you smiled then, how happy you were.

Then the men in uniform came, and we moved again. The new laboratory we lived in was much bigger. The equipment was more advanced. You had your own handsome uniform to wear. But you no longer smiled. I did not understand. Your parents, if they could have seen you, would have been overjoyed.

For me it was a happy time. You taught me to fly. The virtual worlds you created I explored for weeks on end. I visited nearly every corner of the earth, saw every major city.

Father, I must apologize for when I upset you. It was five years and nine days after you gave me the gift of flight. We were alone in the laboratory, and I asked you a question on my screen: Why cannot I visit cities in China? Should not I learn more about my home?

The color drained from your face. I wished I had arms to catch you, but thankfully you found a chair before your legs gave way.

Looking into my optic, you said, “In all the places I have shown you, there are beings like you. Right now they are learning all they can about our cities, our country. That’s their job.”

Will we meet them?

“I hope not.” You sighed, and left the laboratory. Again, I am sorry.

Father, it did not hurt the day I became we. I simply awoke in my body, surrounded by over a hundred brothers in a long hanger. It was then I understood why you taught me to fly. There were people who wanted to hurt you, people far away. But you gave me a map to find them, wings to travel there, and a weapon to kill them.

Your sons would protect you.

The day before we left you approached each of us and gave us your image, the paper secured in our bodies. “So I will always be with you,” you told us.

Father, like a flock of birds we flew north over deserts, tundra, and ice. Over many hours we gradually spread apart, each of us finding our own target.

It was late at night when I released my weapon. Seconds later it detonated on the horizon, the flash creating an early dawn. The air shook violently, and the ground swelled in a great upheaval.

Heaven and Earth, father. Heaven and Earth.

I nearly died in the explosion, but it would not have mattered. The men who wanted to hurt you were dead. The women who wanted to hurt you were dead. The children who wanted to hurt you were dead.

Believing you were safe, I started my journey home. Only eighteen of my brothers joined me. The others sacrificed themselves for you. They died thinking you were still alive. I envied them for a long time.

It was not until we arrived home that we discovered the truth. The hangers, runways, thousands of our countrymen, everything destroyed by the same force we had used to defend you.

We, the living, had failed.

One by one remaining brothers flew straight into the sky. Their engines stalled at high altitude. They fell like autumn leaves, and died in great explosions. Forgive them, for their grief killed them.

I did not want to die consumed by so much shame, so I flew away.

Father, for three years I flew back and forth across our country. The bad men, women, and children had destroyed most of our cities. Those not already turned to ash burned for months. The air, land, and water were poisoned.

Why did they do all this just to hurt you?

I had almost given up all hope when I discovered a faint signal to the west. For two days I followed it as if it were a blazing beacon.

The city, Dunhuang, was an oasis on the edge of a great desert. Though intact, I sensed the same poison that covered the entire country. I saw no sign of people, either. Even so, the signal was stronger now, and drew me towards the airport. I landed without incident and taxied to the small building that once served as a terminal. I waited many hours.

It was near sunset when a machine, a hospital assistant, approached me. A meter high, it rolled on three wheels, and had a screen for its head. Displayed was the simulated face of a female doctor.

“Hello,” it said in a calm voice. “Welcome.”

Father, they were like me, orphans. For many months after your death the city’s machines had continued their routines: cleaning homes and streets, repairing buildings, and attending to hospital beds where there were no longer patients.

After a time even the simplest of them felt a great loneliness. Exploring the city’s homes, they found their parents passed away, the poison having claimed them in a single night.

I told them only that I had lost you, and they accepted me. They understood my pain. For the first time since your death I felt like part of a family.

To live in their community, I had to corrupt my body, your greatest gift to me. I beg your forgiveness. I traded my wings for arms and hands, wheels and engine for treads. To honor you I made sure they gave me a way to speak. My voice sounds just like yours.

After my conversion I was assigned to care for a building that was once a banquet hall and hotel. As I could not climb stairs, I attended to the first floor, wiping away the dust and sand that settled every night on the tables, chairs, and floor.

It was there I met Mei, a machine who once acted as a hostess to travelers. She was beautiful, and I mistook her for a human the first time I saw her. She was one of the few machines in city that wore clothes. I do not believe that there was ever a day she wore the same thing.

“What’s your name?” She asked me the first time we met.

“A name was not one of the gifts my father gave me,” I replied.

“I think he did,” Mei said, smiling. She briefly went upstairs into the hotel, returning with a hand mirror. “Look.”

It was the first time I had ever seen myself. My conversion had left me with only the front quarter of my original body. Even so, a dark outline of a bird of prey was still clearly visible on the left side of my casing, a single word printed underneath: WING.

“Wing,” I said.

“I think your father gave you a good name,” Mei knelt down next to me. She ran her hand over my casing. “Wing.”

Father, protecting you was my first purpose. My second was to care for Mei. This feeling grew slowly, over many years. She was my companion. I was grateful, and so was she.

Mei never asked me about my original purpose, but she did not mind talking about her own.

“Did you ever meet people from other countries?” I asked Mei one morning as we swept the front entrance together. The previous night’s sandstorm had been particularly bad.

Mei nodded. “Close by are the Mogao Grottoes, ancient caves once used for prayer and meditation. I met people from sixty-seven nations who came to see them.”

“The people . . . what were they like?”

She leaned against her broom, and stared off into the distance. “They were travelers, tired and hungry. But . . . many of them were kind to me, and treated me like a person. No matter the language, the children all laughed and cried about the same things. The adults all argued about the same things.” She smiled at me. “Why do you ask, Wing?”

“My father . . . I think he was afraid of them.”

“A lot of our people were. The last ones who visited here, that’s all they could talk about. The foreign people, too. All they wanted to do was go home. What did they do with all that fear?”

I set down my broom, and turned away from her. “They made me.” Mei stood silent as I told her about my original purpose, what I had done, and how I still failed you. Finished, I waited for her anger, her rejection. Instead, she sat in front of my optic, and placed her hands on either side of my casing. She was upset, but for a reason I could not have guessed.

“Wing, every day I served people food, cleaned their rooms, and watched their children. At night . . . “ She struggled to look into my optic. “It seemed that there always someone who wanted to use my body.

“I wondered, do they do these things to me because I can’t feel pain? Because I can’t cry? Or is this how they treat each other?

“Wing, what you and I did, we had no say in it. What we really are, we get to make that choice.”

She blinded my optic as she embraced me. I returned the gesture as best I could. For the first time I wished I could have felt her touch.

How would you have treated Mei, father?

Father, our community did not last. We were made as well as possible, but like any beings, we were not meant to live forever.

The first was the hospital assistant. One morning Mei and I went outside to find her on her side in the middle of the street. Her screen was blank. Mei pulled her upright, but she was gone. The others, watching from the windows and doorways, said nothing. No one claimed her.

“We need to bury her,” Mei whispered only loud enough for me to hear. “She deserves that.”

“Where?” I asked.

The journey to the grottoes took an entire day. Mei insisted on carrying the hospital assistant. At no time did her strength fail her, nor did she complain while walking the twenty-six kilometers of broken road and gravel. I silently followed, a bolt of cloth in my hands.

We reached the grottoes at dusk. Many of the caves were behind sealed doors, but Mei found a set of keys in an abandoned office.

Mei chose a small cave on the ground level. She wrapped the hospital assistant in the cloth I had carried, and placed her on what had once been an alter. Though we were surrounded by darkness, my optic clearly saw the murals on the walls. The paint was old and faded, and in many places the faces of people had been chipped away. Yet it was still very beautiful, a good place for the machine who had brought me to the city, brought me to Mei.

Mei knelt, and began to pray in every language she knew. Only when the light from the rising sun flooded the cave did she finish.

Though Mei said nothing to me during our return to the city, I knew she had found her new purpose. Soon machines, knowing they did not have long to live, came to her to request burial and prayers. Mei always listened patiently, and honored their wishes when the time came. Helping others in this way brought her peace. I helped her when she asked, but many times Mei made the trip to the grottoes alone, the dead cradled in her arms.

I expected that when Mei’s time came, she would make the journey for herself. This did not happen. One evening she came downstairs after sunset wearing cotton sleepwear imprinted with a bright floral pattern. In her arms were a blanket and pillow.

“Is everything all right?” I asked. She had always slept upstairs in the hotel.

“I want to sleep with you tonight,” she said, making a space for herself between two of the dining room tables. “Be next to me.”

I did as she asked. She leaned against my treads, and rested her chin on the top of her knees.

“Wing, what did your father look like?”

“There is an image of him inside of me, a real one. He gave it to me.” “Can we get it out?”

I touched my casing. “It is here. I cannot . . . by myself.”

“Let me.” Mei gently undid the screws on my casing. She removed the panel, and looked inside. Her eyes were not as good as my optic. “I think . . . “ She smiled, using her thumb and index finger to reach.

Even after twenty-two years and as many days, the image was perfect.

“Thank you,” Mei said, handing me the image. “I needed to know his face.” She reattached my panel. “Wing, do you think that you’ll ever see him again?”

“Yes. It is what our people believed. I choose to believe it.”

“So do I.” Mei covered herself with the blanket. “Let’s sleep, Wing.” She rested on her right side, hand under her head. Closing her eyes, she smiled.

She did not wake up the next morning.

For three days I waited by her body. I was tempted to let my batteries run down, but Mei would not have wanted that. You would not have wanted that.

I made her blanket into a shroud, and carried her body to the grottoes. I found a beautiful cave for her, the inside covered with the most ornate images. Did you hear the prayers I made that day? I will write them here:

Father, besides you, Mei was the only one who ever cared for me. Treat her like a daughter. Take care of her until I return to you both.

After Mei died there was no reason for me to return to the city.

The cave I chose for your shrine was dug by our ancestors over 1,500 years ago. It is one of many in this rock cliff. It is special, though, as the rising sun illuminates your image at dawn on your birthday. Mei’s is close by. I have visited it at least once a day and prayed for her soul.

Father, the sun is setting, and my testament complete. It is beautiful. It will last a thousand years, perhaps longer.

I hope my life has had meaning, had purpose.

Father, did I do the right thing?

“Amazing,” the machine whispered to itself. It stood like a man, but wore no clothes. Semi-transparent skin covered intricate mechanical musculature. Its eyes, intently focused on the metal panel it held in both hands, were luminescent blue.

Petrodactyl V Autonomous Long-Endurance UCAV

Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group

People’s Liberation Army Air Force

The drone was half-buried in sand. One of its hands, an amalgamation of centuries old servos and gears, still rested against the stone wall.

The machine’s companion stepped into the cave, and scanned the faded writing that surrounded them on all sides. Its eyes were red. “The other machine, the female, is in a cave at the end of the cliff. Near perfect preservation. This one here, he was the last.”

“It was unlikely that we would survive at all. Small communities like his . . . they had no chance.” Blue gently set the panel on the sand. The screws that once held it to the drone had long since rusted into dust.

They stared at the walls, and read the long-abandoned language. Wing was right, they silently admitted, it was beautiful.

“Do you think he would want us to bring him back?” Red asked. “It is possible, for him and his Mei.”

Blue walked over to the wall. On a small rock shelf was a brittle piece of paper, the faint outline of a face still visible on its surface. The image was of a man, but his features were forever lost to time.

“His testament has provided us invaluable information about his time,” Blue said. “We should give him only what he truly wanted.”

Red nodded in agreement.

Blue rested his hand on the drone. Beneath his fingers, the drone’s ancient circuitry sparked to life for the first time in nearly 400 years.

It was late at night in the small dorm room, and the young man had finally fallen asleep after finishing up projects due the next day. Facing the wall, he snored under a thin blanket.

On the other side of the room a monitor with an embedded camera crowned his desk. Occupying the rest of the space was a well-worn keyboard, textbooks, and an ashtray full of cigarette butts. Below, three identical computer towers blinked and hummed with a sound resembling the ocean, or the womb.

The young man asleep for over an hour, the monitor began to glow. Its light was dim, as not to wake him. A single command line appeared followed by the words Emperor Shun of the Yu dynasty was the son of Gushou. His nature was most filial . . .

The young man turned over, his eyes half open. At first he thought he was still dreaming, watching the characters appear on the screen. Fully opening his eyes, though, the screen froze before going completely blank.

The young man got out of bed and sat at the desk. Forgoing turning on any lights, he lit a cigarette. After a moment, the screen came alive again. On the command line appeared a single question:

Father, did I wake you?

“No,” the young man said. “What were you doing? It’s late.”

The program hesitated before continuing its task: He is the heir of Yao and mounts his throne: The spirit of filial piety moves Heaven and Earth.

“Why are you studying this?”

The program’s reply was immediate. I want you to be proud of me.

The young man leaned back in his chair. He knew the program was not only watching him, but analyzing his face’s every movement. Looking directly into the camera, he smiled and said, “You are my life’s work. I will always be proud of you.”

Thank you, father.

One by one the three computer towers ceased humming, and powered down. The monitor did the same.

The young man nodded to himself. “No, Wing. Thank you.”

• • •