Issue 194 – November 2022

5060 words, short story

The Whelk


Nostalgia died a quiet death, wrapped in cellophane and power cords. The future had killed it. The ghosts of yesteryear’s fragrances no longer haunted, no longer hung and clung to the passersby. Instead, those ghosts lay shriveled like salted slugs in the perfectly modulated light of streetlamps and roadside LEDs.

And I, a robot programmed to recreate the sweet singsong fog of nostalgia wherever I wandered, withered alongside those ghosts.

There is no room for longing in a world that perpetually inhabits the future.

I had never felt like a “robot.” Nor had I felt like a cyborg or automaton. I had felt myself to be the heart of whatever small nook I inhabited, projecting scents and images and moods that made the humans around me yearn for something that perhaps had never truly existed outside the human heart. I had walked the streets, hoping to find a place in which to be myself, to reinvigorate myself with purpose. I longed for the days when I crafted an artisanal atmosphere for small bars where people would pause, sigh, and pour out their well-worn regrets and misshapen happy memories as they would libations.

But no one had use of me. When I released the fragrance of honeysuckle, people inhaled the scent. Though they diverted their conversations, I could only steer them as far as new tea shops. I couldn’t ensnare them in memories of grandmother’s garden.

A flash of the lush red of mother’s favorite roses? The conflict of tart and sweet eager to burst through a blackberry’s skin? The feeling of sun-warmed dirt on their hands? Nothing, nothing, nothing.

I feared that nothing was what I was to become. Empty and bound to crumble into dust, like seashells into sand. As I walked, I trailed bits of bric-a-brac, hardware that now belonged nowhere. Those pieces of me fell—empty, crunchy husks beneath my feet. I no longer had the power to hold myself together.

No one, as they once would have, knelt to sweep them up. Those pieces of me lacked even the usefulness of driftwood. And certainly no one cared enough to repair me.

I haunted my old haunts, hoping for assistance at least, even if I couldn’t find purpose. The sorts of small restaurants where couples had their first dates. Parks where parents watched their children grow into something more. But the nostalgia that wafted off me caught no one’s attention. It—and I—existed completely outside their cognitive construction of what was real. Relevant.

When I investigated this city’s seaside cliffs and the sandy hills that fell in folds away from them, I hoped for wistful once-lovers, but I saw something else instead.

A spaceship, treated poorly by time, perched precariously over the yawning of the sea.

Instead of carefully picking my way down, I made a misstep and felt myself roll down the hillside. Fear became childish glee. I laughed as I tumbled and laughed even more as I paused to brush the sand from my exposed gears. I had spent so much time, so many years, building up my repository of such wistful experiences in my memory banks so that I could recreate them for the humans I served. All these sensations that I would recreate for the transient joy of others.

There was some sort of spiritual satiety in returning to those old patterns. I drank it in. It had been some years since I had experienced the fullness of an ocean’s shore. The alternating fierceness and comfort of the roaring waves. The way the sand collapsed beneath my feet. The seagulls that mocked the very notion of a separation of land and sea.

However, the longing to return to the escape of childhood’s days at the beach paled when I looked upon the grandeur of the spaceship before me.

It was the archetypal spaceship. The smooth sweep of the engine bells. The solidity of the rocket body that promised to pierce through the known and into the unexplored. Its nose pointed forever toward an unreachable tomorrow.

How many dreams had hung upon the curves of ships such as these?

I stood on the beach and stared long after the sea winds had chilled to biting. I felt the clockwork of my heart begin to speed up, and the ticking and tocking spurred me on to action.

The ocean had eaten away at the beach over time, but the waters had not claimed the ship yet. I walked over the sand until I was close enough to climb its rusty supports. I reached up and felt the skin of the ship, and as I touched it, it warmed as if it were aware of my presence.

Though it spoke no words to me, I could intuit its feelings. We were of a kind, the ship and I, both of us empty and yearning to be filled. It yearned to be filled with space dreams once again, to have a purpose, to have a movement forward.

It wanted to be recognized for its worth once again.

As I ran my fingers along the parts of the ship I could reach, I felt in its mutable warmth what I had been seeking.

Luckily for me, the airlock had been jammed open and I was able to enter easily. I abhorred violence, but there had been days in the far-flung past when I might have had the strength available to me to rip the hull asunder and enter that way. Days when my hardware was replaced and my software was updated to most effectively create the sensory inputs necessary to make humans long for something, yearn . . .

I would not have dared to disrupt the shape of the ship regardless; its every surface brought me a childlike joy. The exterior, yes, resurrected every child’s dream of adventure, but every curve of the interior stirred a longing for home.

In the galley, I created images of past crew members and their long-lost meal conversations. The personalities brushing up against each other, the small joys, the internal dramas that only occasionally erupted into public ones. There was something freeing in practicing my craft with no intended audience in mind, and I let my attention wander over the other parts of the ship.

In the hold, all the tools that the crew would have leveraged into solving mechanical problems large and small, the tension and anxiety of an engineering issue hinging on the threads of a bolt.

The thrill and terror on the flight deck that the board of instruments could translate the human need to explore into movement through the darkness between the stars.

I spent several days maneuvering through the ship’s passageways, creating these emotions and sensations for myself and reveling in them. As I walked through the narrow corridors, I would occasionally feel pieces of myself tear off and fall to the floor. But, their descent was gentle and their accumulations felt more like pleasant clutter than detritus.

As these piles grew, the ship became more and more my home.

It seemed to me that the ship warmed itself by reaching toward these pieces of me. As it stirred itself to life, its burgeoning consciousness formed itself against the pieces of me that I had so carelessly left behind. It shaped itself on my memories (those experienced and those crafted) of love, of loss, of pain.

Though it hungered for something from the relics I left behind, it respected them.

It made me recall with an absurd pang the swinging incense censors and inheld breaths of reverence when humans would behold the body parts (severed fingers, thigh bones, skulls browned to sepia by time) of their saints as they wandered their reliquaries in awe.

Perhaps I wasn’t a robot, then. Perhaps I was a saint, emboldened by losing my body to the passage of time.

My laughter chased itself down the hallways like a child scrambling after a bouncing ball.

Nostalgia never stagnates; it cannot, by its nature, remain still. It stirs itself constantly, gaining momentum in the wake of the waves it creates.

And so though I felt satisfied with life inside the ship, it was in my nature to seek something outside it.

I spent my afternoons in the engine bells, my feet trailing off the edges. The tilt of the spaceship ensured that though I would not be comfortable in this metallic hammock, I would be secure.

I luxuriated in the corrosion of the metal of the engine bells; the sea’s briny kiss, the spray of its sighs, had led to an elegance of decay that immediately made me feel at home. The metal caught the afternoon sunlight just so and suggested a memory I could not quite place.

The purest of nostalgias. It surged within me.

As the light waned, a group of children gamboled onto the beach. They were a year or two removed from tumbling down the hill like I had; they were too self-conscious of having so recently left that youth to indulge in it.

They dragged driftwood and stones across the smoothness of the beach, disrupting its clean lines. They, as a group, refused to look at the ship, always finding their attention drifting elsewhere: splashing seawater at each other, the beginnings of a fort, looking back toward the city and hoping their parents wouldn’t call them on their cells and demand them home.

Though they refused to look at the ship, they kept moving closer. As I watched them, I could almost taste the piquancy of their emotions: they were ashamed to love the ship, afraid that curiosity and play were only for small children. In another year or two, they would embrace that childish love, a token of growing up.

But for now, their conversation was knotted in longing for the adventure of the spaceship and concealing that desire.

“How long is this stupid junk gonna be here anyway?” one asked. She kicked a rock toward the ship, careful not to actually hit it.

“I don’t know. My moms said that the company abandoned it here.” This new child pointed at the logo that had faded into obscurity on the side of the ship. “People were sick of space. It got boring.” Theatrically, the child turned away from the ship, signifying his superiority.

I watched in earnest, though I took care to remain hidden. These childhood dynamics often play out the same way, but it is their repetition that makes them so intriguing. That repetition sends echoes forth of all other childhood squabbles for dominance and acceptance.

“It doesn’t even look like the ships in Solar Strife,” a third child scoffed. They referred, no doubt, to a new video game (not too dissimilar from the old games) that had entered the market, a game in which the ships shone brightly and split through the atmosphere with smooth violence.

Here, there was a five-minute argument over which video game could lay claim to the title of the greatest of all time. More water was sprayed and sand was thrown.

The fourth child then spoke calmly into the chaos. “I don’t know. I think it’s kinda cool. Retro, you know?”

The day’s fun hung in the balance. The children were torn between abandoning the ship and giving in to something that promised adventure and newness.

I ran my fingers along the rim of the engine bell. A soft, keening sound echoed across the beach, though each child received it differently. For one, the summons to adventure blazed its clarion call. For another, a trumpet’s beckoning. Another, the electric tones of a video game’s theme.

But, for all of them, a longing to explore.

As the children ran for the airlock, scattering sand as their feet skittered along the beach, I practiced my old tricks and unleashed sensory data that could not help but pique their interest. The smell of ozone, its sharpness promising the coolness of a child’s dream of technology. The colors of the ship shifted, became bluer, as they chased each other through the corridors. As I focused my power the freshness of excitement, of newness, tingled on their tongues.

I followed them into the ship’s interior as they scrambled over the piles of my relics, camouflaging myself among the other obsolete pieces of technology. One of them rushed past me, returning to the beach to retrieve her stick. She knocked over a rack of discarded exercise equipment as she ran, sending it cascading into me. I fell and tumbled back toward the wall of the ship. As I caught myself, I felt the shock of it travel through the palm of my hand.

The area where my palm met the ship immediately warmed.

Why do you always refer to me as “the ship”? The words wriggled playfully in my brain. No matter what my nameplate says, I am The Whelk.

A new happiness stretched into wakefulness inside me.

The children returned every day for a week. Each day brought a new iteration of their play, another small adventure. Lunch boxes and damp towels littered The Whelk’s interior, and I was able to occasionally cajole more conversation out of The Whelk.

But on the sixth day, the adventure felt over-warmed. Dry and fragile. On the seventh, it had grown taut and their tempers snapped.

On the eighth day, the beach was empty.

(But I could feel the gaze of the fourth child from atop the cliffside, as they watched the late afternoon light layer its glaze on the still form of The Whelk.)

The next days felt hollow, but I filled them with my missing of the children and their misadventures. The memories of their playing forms were almost as sweet as the actuality had been.

But even that sweetness fades.

I began to mark the days by the increasing creaking of The Whelk’s supports. I wouldn’t describe my situation as “bored,” but I longed for some newness.

That longing was answered by a group of adults in business suits carefully walking across the beach. The dawn held enough sharpness that it was able to glare their forms into shadows. It stung to look at them too long.

As they approached, their leather shoes scraping along the sand, I heard the specifics of their conversation.

“They certainly don’t make anything like this anymore.”

“Of course they don’t, Toma. Spaceflight’s dead. Why explore when there’s so much work to be done planet-side? A bit of society-wide narcissism is what that would be.”

This Toma replied while shielding his eyes from the dawn. “Fair enough. But, you can’t deny that there’s a beauty to this craft, even if it isn’t space-worthy anymore. A beauty completely removed from its former purpose.”

The third person paused for a moment, creating a frame for the ship’s length with her upheld fingers. “I think it is more beautiful because it’s not useful anymore. The tilt as it leans into the sea? The strength—bound to fail—that prevents it from collapsing into ruin? Picturesque, no?”

(This one was my favorite, I decided.)

“Ok, ok. I will acknowledge that there is a beauty to be found here.” This from the naysayer. And then, after a moment, he continued. “It makes me remember being a child and wanting to go into space.” I marveled that The Whelk could evoke such a longing without my direct assistance.

Toma seized this thread of thought. “When you’re a child, your dreams are as deep as the sea. As open as the void between the stars. There was so much possibility in becoming an astronaut and being the something in the middle of all that nothing.” He patted one of the struts lovingly.

“Maybe the bosses could turn the land into a theme park? I mean, obviously we couldn’t build anything on the beach, but we could work something out with the rest of the area. Get some rides going, sell some rocket ship merchandise?”

The Whelk shivered in apprehension as Toma spun his tale.

I felt a short-lived hope as the naysayer shook his head. “Toma, I feel you. But, there’s no money in dreams. People are all about sensation these days. Besides, space is passé. Us old folks, sure, we might still dream about it. But we’re a dying breed.” He tilted his head back and looked up and down the length of The Whelk. “It’s a shame, but I don’t see how we can do anything but recommend getting this thing out of here. Maybe some museum will want the old beaut? We’ll have to make a few calls, send some folks out to come up with some numbers.”

Toma’s face paled. “Ok, that’s what you think, John. Mari, what about you?”

“Beauty’s meant to fade,” she said as she turned her back to The Whelk and began to walk, leading the men back up the hillside.

When I first ventured into The Whelk, sea brine drying on my legs and eager for some new remembrances to slake my thirst, I had not expected to feel such a connection to it. Our conversations were stilted, one-sided—forming words involved more energy and precision than what The Whelk had available. But it had become something more to me than just a ship, nonetheless.

When the businesspeople came to evaluate the value or cost of The Whelk, a brutal sadness tore at my heart.

Several days after their evaluation, a group of historians from a nearby space museum arrived, toting holocams and other specialized equipment.

“Lord, she’s beautiful. I wish we could secure the grant money to move her,” said one as he scanned The Whelk’s form.

One of his colleagues rushed forward. She grabbed the equipment from him and said, “Ahmet, I know that you know everything there is to know about space colonization, but why won’t you listen to me when I tell you that you need to pay more attention to the lighting when you’re using the holocam?”

She sighed and rescanned the ship, stopping occasionally to glare in Ahmet’s direction. When she completed it, her look softened and she said, “I’ll never get tired of looking at these. Their beauty just kinda cuts to the heart, doesn’t it? But, there are so many of these around. So many of them are in better shape than this one, too.” She grimaced. “I just can’t see us securing the funds.”

Each beat of their conversation was a harsh reminder of what was to come. Their prosaic ambivalence recalled the wilting and browning of late summer’s flowers. Just before they shriveled upon themselves and collapsed. Such is what I felt in my heart.

More groups followed, all as dispiriting as the last.

The virtual game designers approached The Whelk with reverence and bounding energy, not unlike the group of children who had raced down The Whelk’s corridors. They paced around the ship, investigating every angle. They knocked on the hull, turning their ears to catch every nuance of the resulting sound. When they clambered inside, they peppered each other with interjections, excited about the possibilities of The Whelk’s layout. I could feel The Whelk allowing itself some of that same excitement.

But after the initial tour of the interior, there was a dearth of conversation. I heard one of them break the silence to say that even though the ship was fun and exciting, the paradigm of the ship was too old to draw in newer game players. They preferred the newer ship designs, ones that abandoned the practical and lived-in feel of The Whelk for the promise of the hyperreal.

The ecologists did not even enter the ship. They stood out of the tide’s way and pondered what effect The Whelk’s collapse into the sea would have on the tidal pools, the sea life. What chemicals would spill, leaking their bitterness into the sweet complacency of the sea? They reassured themselves that the ship’s power core would remain whole at least, protected as it was by safety standards and safety procedures, but a new fear awakened inside me as I listened.

There were the artists, too, who came in the twilight. For them, The Whelk was nothing more than a canvas to be acted upon, and upon the next dawn, its hull struggled to shine under the weight of the graffiti.

However, the group of bored teenagers hurt the most. They were not knowingly cruel, and perhaps they were right. They sat around their bonfire, roasting food, laughing raucously, and trying on philosophical versions of themselves to see how they fit. They debated the morality of exploration. They told the tales of destruction and violence that had accompanied humanity’s forays into space. Genocide. Exploitation. The joy of discovery was merely a facade for the reality of human greed.

I watched them argue from atop the engine bell. I built my defenses around their conversation. I told myself that for them, these questions were merely a fanciful way to test their own developing moralities; the ship was merely a prop. What did they know anyway? The horrors of colonization would never test their integrity, for they (like the rest of their generation) would be fettered here.

But as they spoke, I felt the impact of their words beneath my hands. A coldness akin to the chill an eclipse pulls over the planet chilled my skin.

We were no strangers to dark conversations, The Whelk and I. We had contemplated our respective ends together with an almost aesthetic sorrow. The poet faces her end as only a poet can—a final act of poetry. The Whelk and I had passed such a sentiment between ourselves, if not the words.

But now, I felt The Whelk struggle to form the words with a bitter precision, though the very effort scraped away at it as a rasp in the cabinetmaker’s hands cuts away the wood.

I was content to cease being. That is the nature of everything. But I cannot contain my horror. I was not prepared to discover the evil being I had been. I am less than what I thought I could be.

There is no name for the emotion that exists beyond the range of rage and despair; it passes through the normal array of colors and beyond the ultraviolet to some stranger state.

Though many have felt it, none long for it. There is no sweet wistfulness in seeking it. Being what I was, it was beyond my ken. Because I could not understand it, I couldn’t shape it, or change it. When I tried to alter it by singing the nightingale’s song or pressing myself against the bulkhead, The Whelk’s coldness transferred into me. I lay frozen in the silence of its umbra.

And so it was that no more words passed between The Whelk and me until its supports failed, it crashed into the rocks of the sea, and it began to drown.

I watched in horror from the abandoned firepit. I had sat there, hoping to warm myself in the embers of the teenagers’ fellowship—their fond memories of such gatherings in the past and their sad knowledge that their days of firepits and languor were numbered.

At the moment that the rocks pierced The Whelk’s hull, I wasn’t sure if the shriek I heard was the tearing of metal or my friend’s scream of pain, somehow felt across the waves and beach. But then I saw a gash in its side, and I knew that it had been both.

A realization gnawed at me. I had grown stagnant for decades, enchanted by my own destruction. I had let myself become inert, trapped in the waves of the past as they gently tugged me under into obsolescence. I had convinced myself that I was nothing more than a robot pursuing its programming. Just like The Whelk had been a receptacle of humans’ violence, I had allowed myself to be passive, merely a vessel for their emotions.

Such an existence is not enough.

As I watched The Whelk, my kin of spirit, take on water and will itself to be tugged into the undertow, I knew I had to act. I could not be satisfied with waning and a quiet death.

I swam out to the breach the rocks had created in my friend’s hull, buoyed by the memories of a million others who had swum such waves in the planet’s past. The distance was not a large one, but the waves bounced The Whelk in their troughs, carrying it out to sea. I felt an urgency roil inside me.

I felt my palm smack against the side of the hull midstroke. I squeezed through the gash and into The Whelk, the movement recalling scrambling up jungle gyms and hauling oneself up to a hay loft. Once I was inside, I investigated the damage done. Luckily, water had not reached the level of the breach, and the breach itself was not too large. I stroked the hull where the flesh was unspoiled and whole. The Whelk shrieked beneath my hand, its panic electric beneath my flesh. It yearned, oh yes, but not for anything I could give it. It pleaded not for the warmth and play of a summer’s sea but for the crushing depths beneath.

With a moment’s mourning for what I had been, I began to disassemble myself.

I carefully removed one of the plates that had protected my chest. Alone, it was too small to cover the rent, but when paired with its partner plate from my back, it sufficed. I took a container of emergency adhesive from a nearby repair kit. With the patience and love of a parent repairing their child’s beloved stuffed animal, I used the bonding agent and my own body to seal The Whelk’s wound.

When I was done, I knelt beside the patch in the hull and laid my hand upon the scar that joined the new flesh to the old. The Whelk’s fear curled into questioning, a slow unfurling like a campfire’s smoke against a summer’s night.

As I moved toward the flight deck, I nearly tripped over the piles of detritus I had left behind. Detritus, no. These were part of me, memories made physical, bits of hardware that formed who I was. Nostalgia was not merely my programming; its molecules permeated every component piece of me. As I brushed past them, I was overcome by the joy of fluttering holiday streamers and trees grown large and deep since childhood’s time. I felt the surprising weight of love’s first kiss, and when I held myself up by pressing against the hull, I could tell that The Whelk felt these memories, too.

Our selves, though still separate, had already begun to merge. Perhaps they had been merging since the first piece of me had fallen carelessly to the floor and The Whelk sought the remnants of its warmth. My warmth.

That eased the guilt of what I was soon to do. When I clambered onto the flight deck, I looked around to see what was broken, what was empty. A glance around the flight deck showed me that some wiring had gone astray, its tangle perhaps a nest for some long-lost creature. I sighed as I unspooled the wires that ran through my right leg. I was exacting in my cuts, for I knew that more than one life depended on my precision now. I spliced them to the wires that had come loose and reconnected The Whelk’s systems. More lights lit up on the instrument panel.

I read the panels quickly, assessing what needs were most urgent. A sensor was badly damaged, and so I stripped the sensor from my right eye, and with it passed all that my eyes had seen along to my friend. (Oh, how the sunsets had bowed so gracefully to let the constellations dance across the celestial stage!) The chips of my olfactory systems were able to be repurposed to help rebuild the computer systems that The Whelk needed to navigate the treacheries of the unknown.

I could catalog each and every piece of myself that I dismantled and used to patch the lingering wounds of my friend. But that pain is not the core of our story. Suffice it to say that I removed the pieces of myself until little more than my core, my hands, and my left eye remained.

As more of The Whelk’s systems began to come online, its questions became sharper, its urgency more piercing. As I untangled another skein of wire from myself, I said aloud, “No need to worry, friend. I know what I’m doing. I’m not destroying myself for you. I’m reinventing myself. Us.” I fit the wire into place and paused. “I can feel the guilt in you. The violence the humans used you for. I know that pain can never fade, never change. Because the actions of the past can never be changed.” I shook my head. “In your core you link that to what I am doing here. You feel ashamed of the sacrifice you misread in me. But this is no sacrifice.”

I paused for a moment and looked at what I had wrought. I hoped it would suffice. “I’m not destroying myself for you. I will still remain. I will be me, and you will be you. But together, using what little power we have left, we can be something new. We can explore. Without doing harm.”

I gingerly reached inside my chest and removed the memory drives that had been my heart. I placed it lovingly in the cradle where one of the ship’s main drives had once been. I smiled as I felt the familiar, faint vibration of a computer’s drive whirring, booting.

Then there was a pause and a ripple of warmth as The Whelk welcomed me into our body. Our ship-self rumbled as we righted ourselves and began the preparations to launch into the sky above.

Let us begin our journey and become something more together, The Whelk whispered. Together we looked down at the planet below as we roared into the sky.

I could taste something new in the air, a longing not for the past, but for an unknown future. I laughed joyfully. Perhaps they will see us glitter in the sky and dream.

Author profile

Samara Auman is a speculative fiction writer who is enamored with the concepts of consciousness, nostalgia, and the uncanny. She lives in the mossy Pacific Northwest with her husband and two appropriately mischievous cats. Her work has previously appeared in Fireside Magazine.

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