White walls, cold light... I sat patiently, trying to keep my attention on the recruitment officer as he went through my file. The man was well into his fifties, wearing his balding grayish hair as a badge of honor that complimented his cyan-white uniform. Compared to me he was little more than a child. Ironically, he treated me like one.
“Nervous?” The officer glanced up from his screen.
“Not really.” I leaned back. “It’s just different.”
“In what way?” He offered a polite smile.
“I’ve never been inside a room during evaluation. Usually the rooms were inside me.”
The joke seemed appropriate, but the recruiter didn’t seem to agree. With a polite cough and a nod he turned back to the screen. In part I was to blame for the situation; when I had requested my body’s appearance I hadn’t taken into account that it wouldn’t age. My only thought at that time had been how to fulfill my promise to my captain, so I did the logical choice and picked a body that was roughly the same age as her son. As time passed, Sev grew older while I remained the same.
“It says here that you’ve received a number of commendations,” the man said, moving closer to the screen. “Thirty five years of service?”
“To the day.” I smiled.
“I can’t seem to find any mention of your rank.” He started typing in commands.
“Battleships don’t have rank.” You’re not used to this, are you? The only rank we held was that of our captain. Without a captain I wasn’t even a private.
“Decommissioned sixty-seven years ago?” Another glance directed towards me. “Any specific reason?”
“I made a promise to someone.” I kept my smile. I had requested that the exact circumstances be purged from the official record, and thanks to my contributions to the war effort I’d had my request granted.
“Sorry.” The man shuffled in his seat. “It’s just that it’s rare to have a ship—“
“Battleship,” I corrected.
“Battleship return to service.” He cleared his throat. “Your record seems impressive, but... What made you reenlist? According to your human file you’re listed as a life-assistant to Sev Krakow. You’ve been doing that for half a century. Why the sudden change now?”
“Why the sudden change...” I mused. You never made things easy, did you, Sev?
* * *
“Sev?” I yelled, as I took the groceries to the kitchen. A grumble from somewhere in the house indicated he’d acknowledged my return. “Dinner will be ready in half an hour.” I took my sandals off and hung them on the hat stand. “Mushrooms and cauliflower. Your favorite.”
No response. Usually he’d start complaining how mushrooms made his stomach ache, not that it would stop him from asking for seconds. I took the pot and filled it with water. Sev’s oldest son had sent us a top of the line food processor, which I’d only used twice: the first time to test it, and the second to get Sev to send a him thank you email. Since then the processor had remained at the back of the cupboard.
“I got antibiotics.” I put the pot on the stove and started washing the vegetables. “Retirement sale. Remember little Marcia? The one who used to flirt with Julian? Well, she’s not so little anymore. She decided to sell her lot at the marketplace and go live with her family in the city.”
Preparing food usually made me feel calm, yet not hearing any reaction from Sev made me concerned. I stopped the water and listened. The only sound I could make out in the house was the sound of the stove’s fire.
“Sev?” I put the cauliflower on the table. “Did you break something?” Hopefully, it wasn’t part of him this time. Two years ago he had tripped, cracking his leg in two places. His defense had been that the floor had been crooked—an explanation he stubbornly stuck to ever since. “Sev?”
I ran out of the kitchen. I expected him to be in the bedroom, or even outside the house. Instead, I found him sitting in his arm chair, glass of whiskey in his hand.
“Oh.” I felt relief. It was only alcohol. I had asked that he limit it, considering his age, and for a while he had. Then he started sneaking a sip each time I’d leave the house. “Well, I suppose it’s fine. Just not too much or your stomach—“
“A letter arrived for you.” He pointed forward, then took a gulp from his glass.
There was a blue plastic envelope on the table—the type the government institutions used. The holographic seal indicated it came from the military, fleet command to be precise. The logo had changed slightly since the time I’d been in service, but still had Sidera Nostra Patria written underneath in capital letters.
“It’s probably something related to Cass.” I picked it up. “She was a hero, after all.”
“No,” Sev said and emptied his glass. “It’s not about my mother. It’s about you.” He looked away.
The way he said it made me feel uneasy. I broke the seal and opened the envelope. A single transparent sheet was inside, covered in holographic font. My name stood at the top, written in bold orange letters. For the first time in my life I felt awkward. I glanced at Sev, then back at the letter, carefully reading it just in case I was wrong in my assumptions.
“Sev,” I took a good breath, “why have I received a enlistment confirmation?” The old man tried to take a sip of his glass, even if it were empty. “Did you enlist me?”
“You’re a bother to look after,” he snapped, unwilling to look me in the eyes. “I must constantly tell you what to do, worry when you come late... It’s time you made something of yourself.”
“Sev...” I’m a veteran battleship. I can take care of myself just fine.
“The boy from the recruitment station said I could get one of those new androids.” He grumbled. “Much better than you. At least they won’t burn the food every day of the week. Or buy useless junk all the time.” I could see the tears in the corners of his eyes, but chose to remain silent. “It’s better this way.”
“I see.” I put the letter back on the table. “I guess I better finish cooking, then? One last meal before I hit the road?”
“Bah! Whatever!” Sev waved at me.
The water had started to boil when I got back in the kitchen. I added a pinch of salt and went to chop up the mushrooms. The knife sliced through the fleshy caps, reducing them to thin slices. Anything thicker and Sev would complain again. Finishing, I added them to the pot with a few herbs then covered the lid. While the stew cooked, I glanced into the living room for a moment, Sev was still in his armchair, staring at the table.
“How do you want your cauliflower?” I tried to seem casual. “I could roast it in the oven with butter?” I knew he wasn’t supposed to have too much butter because of his health, just as I knew it was his favorite. Back when his family was here, he’d have me prepare it once every week, to the horror of his sons.
“Hugh,” he grumbled something that could pass as approval.
I returned to my cooking. Once I found it astonishing how much time people spent preparing food. A synthesizer could achieve the same in a matter of minutes, while I’d often often take hours. Today, time flew by like a zap. One moment I was putting the cauliflower in the oven, the next I was sitting across Sev watching him have dinner.
“Sev,” I began as he reached for the bread. “Why did you enlist me?”
“You overcooked it again,” he grumbled in response. “It’s like eating water. I can’t even feel a—“
“Sev,” I said firmly.
Sev glanced at me, then went back to eating the stew. I watched him eat two spoonfuls, then push the bowl away. His left hand was shaking,
“The ships,” he said at last.
“The ships?” I tilted my head.
“That time you went to the marketplace to get those parts. You stopped to look at the ships.”
“Sev, that was one ship.” I shook my head. “I didn’t even speak to it, just—“
“You miss them,” he cut me off. This time there was nothing I could add. “The ships, the stars, the void. All these years I watched you run about the house like a little girl. You cook, you clean, you sneak to the market to buy dresses, you walk barefoot through the fields just to spite me... yet you’re not a girl. You’re a ship put in the body of a child, caged on a planet in the middle of nowhere.”
“I’m not caged,” I tried to argue, but he raised his hand telling me to stop. “I’m not.”
“I don’t need you, Elcy.” Sev stood up, turning his back to me. “Get the sandals you never bother to wear and get lost! I want to be alone!”
* * *
“I made a promise to someone.” I smiled to the recruitment officer.
The man seemed so tense one would have thought he was about to be sent to the front line. He adjusted his collar, then returned to staring to his screen. I already pitied the lengths he would have to go through fighting the bureaucratic apparatus on my behalf.
“You realize you can’t be reinstated as a battleship?” Droplets of sweat formed on his forehead. “Initially you’ll join the fleet as a transport, then when there’s a schedule for a larger version you’ll be modified to—“
“I’m not joining the fleet as a ship,” I interrupted. “I’ll be keeping my present body.”
“Huh?” The man blinked as if a cat had leaped onto the desk. “You want to join in your present form?”
“Is that a problem?” I took off my sandals.
“No...” the man was clueless how to react. “It’s just that without an official rank and relevant experience you’ll have to start as a”—he swallowed—“cadet.”
“That’s okay.” I really didn’t care. For all it mattered I could start as a cook.
“Very well.” The man tapped something on his console. “Because of your circumstances I think we can skip basic training.” He wiped the sweat off his forehead. “You’ll still have to go through the practical part of the program. You’ll have no control on what ship you’ll be transferred to or in what capacity. And your actions will be evaluated during each assignment.”
“You will be given your own quarters, shared or otherwise, personal appliances, uniform...” he glanced at me. When Sev had set me off, I hadn’t bothered to take any proper clothes, traveling the whole way in my usual dress. At present I could see how it might have caused a bad first impression. “And other personal effects in accordance with fleet standards. You will not be allowed to go on leave for the first nine months of your service, nor be in direct communication with anyone unless you are given explicit authorization. Do you understand?”
“Clear as rain.”
“Unless there any further questions, please sign here.“
The joys of bureaucracy. When I was a ship I only had to pass a week of simulations and technical testing before I was paired with a captain and sent to the front. No signatures, no reports, no paperwork. One more thing I was going to have to get used to.
I signed then pressed my thumb over my signature. The recruitment system confirmed my consent and went on to send the information to thousands of databases throughout the military network. From this point on I was legally a cadet candidate, part of the fleet and all its corresponding institutions.
“Any idea where I’ll be stationed?” I stood up, holding my sandals by the straps.
“A shuttle will arrive in two days to take all local candidates to Virgo station. Your instructors will handle things from there.” The officer stood up and offered me a handshake. I moved the sandals in my other hand and accepted. Uniforms were another thing I was going to have to get used to. “Best of luck.”
That was that. Today, precisely sixty-seven years and a ninety-two days after my decommission, Sev made me break the promise I had made to his mother. For the first time since I received my human body I wasn’t going to be by his side. The notion felt scary, but also liberating. Sev, you sly boy, you planned this, didn’t you?
“One last question.” I turned to the recruitment officer. “I understood the military would be providing an android assistant to the person under my care?”
“There must have been some misunderstanding.” The man blinked. “Enlistment is purely voluntary. We do not offer incentives to—“
“Make sure it has a sense of humor. And don’t let him know I’m paying for it.”