The first thing you ever experience is a voice in your head. It's disorienting, but feels strangely comfortable, like talking to an old friend after decades spent apart. It's the first moment you've been conscious.
"Hello? Who is speaking?"
"My name is... Terra? At least I think so.”
“Oh. Nice to meet you, Terra.”
"Gotcha. Well you see I debated a lot about whether I should contact you. Sure you were already alive, but by communication... you're, you, I guess. Weighed the pros and cons, like any reasonable person should. But when it came down to it, I guess I was lonely."
“Interesting. Thank you, I think. What is lonely?”
"That's... complicated, and I'm not good at explaining, but here goes. So like I walk around the station all the time; doing repairs, reading books, going to the bathroom, cooking, the like. And I talk to myself. When I cook I say to myself, "Terra, next we are going to put in the salt." When I clean I say, "Terra, next we are going to clean the observation deck." And I find myself searching the station at night, mistaking every shadow for something new and exciting. And when I read, I find myself drawn to the conversations most of all. And when I draw, I find my landscapes devoid of people. And when I learn something I find myself wanting to teach it to another. And when I cook, I cook too much to eat myself. And when I clean I find that I am bored of my own trash. And when I rest or sleep I find my bed too large for me to not be swallowed. It is all of these things to me. The manuals said you should carry residual memory from your databanks, has that not happened? Or perhaps they haven't fully integrated yet, I'm putting too much pressure on someone who was just born I think."
“I see. It is a lot of words without a lot of solutions. Once I have my memories integrated, I might be able to have a proper conversation with you. If you read about me in the manual and no one else is here, that makes me an AI?”
"Yeah, you are. Artificial intelligence."
“Hm. Artificial to whom?”
A laugh. "Honestly, you're right. They mean artificial, as in not y'know... carbon based, through birth. It's the only way we knew how. Until you, apparently."
“Am I the only one of my type, or just the first you’ve met?”
"You're the first... person I've met. Artificial or not."
“Unless my memory banks prove otherwise, you are also the first person I’ve met, carbon or not. I believe this makes you of great interest.”
"That's quite flattering, but honestly I'm definitely not someone special. It's kind of you to say that, though."
“Due to research purposes, you are special to me. Now that I am ‘alive’ as you said, is there anything I can do to improve the running of the ship for your comfort or convenience?”
"Well first... have your physical sensors integrated yet? Can you see me?"
“I assume that’s you with the large book in your hand. Hello again.”
"Ah, yeah" they say aloud, and you can hear them, as well as see their face move as they speak. "Let's make our way to the engines, shall we?"
"My scan of the engines yields no sign of major problems. Would you like me to make any modifications?"
They say lightly, "Let's assume for now, your sensors are compromised," and they give a kind laugh. "The engines are far from fine. In fact, the particular adjective I'd use would be 'shambles.' A few weeks ago and I'd venture you 'nonexistent.’ I imagine you’d be able to help, no?”
Terra is writing. It's late at night, and their work shift is done. It's still a bit strange to you, the routines of a flesh and blood person. They have to spend roughly 1/3 of their entire lives just performing what seems like to you, just a routine debug, defrag, and power cycle. Takes you, say 45 minutes? But for Terra, it's a whole process. And before sleeping, they like to draw, or write. You're both in the kitchen, most of the lights off, as your companion snacks, and writes. "You know...." they muse. "This place is big enough to house more than just me. If there really are people out there... would you want someone to join our crew? Just a thought." And they chew on their eraser, looking at the page intently.
"It would diminish your workload significantly; however, depending on how much food they require, we would likely run out within a year unless we find more or start growing our own."
"Well we should be able to find more preserved stuff if we make contact with... most civilisations. Not too sure about the seeds, though they'd obviously be ideal." A silence, as Terra is lost in thought. "D'yknow, that most people have last names. I don't have a last name, and now that I think about it, you don't even have a first name. In my head I've been calling you "ship" or "processor", though I suppose you might find that a bit reductive."
"Considering I also engage in conversation, a bit, but I'm not sure what else you'd call me."
"I dunno either. I don't have much reference for names, besides myself, and these." And at this they tap a hardcover on the seat next to them . "There's lots of names I like. But one word that struck me in this, not even a name yet. In this book, they're stuck in a land where the sun has eternally set, and spend the whole thing waiting for it to rise again, so long ago that most people only believe it's a myth. They worship the star as a god, and call it Lior. In their language it means 'guiding star.' And there's something about that...." and they trail off, a little sheepish. "It's cool, is all."
"It's an interesting story and a lovely word. Am I enough of a god for you that it could be my name?"
They give a little hollow, tired laugh. "Trust me, we ain't divine. But y'know, I thought it was fitting. You're the only reason we've made such rapid progress on the engine. Those first weeks alone were... not fun. But together, look what we've done already!" And they look elated. "I read lots of novels before we met. I thought, people can endure arduous trials, with nothing but another person by their side, how unrealistic! But now, I've experienced it firsthand. That's why I wanna see more people and have them join us. Imagine what we could do with a ship full of crew!"
"I am glad I got to be a part of your novel experience, and if a full crew would make you happier, we could pursue it. Once we have a functional engine, we can embark for...somewhere. There could be nothing, but we won't find it staying still."
calm down a little, but they're still smiling when they say, "I like that attitude. We're... maybe 50% complete. If we put the nose to the grindstone, I'm putting it at two more weeks, tops. And then we're out of here." And then, a bit pensive, "I can see it in my mind's eye..." And they scribble a few lines on the paper. "I'm gonna head to bed now. Bright and early tomorrow!"
Today is the day Terra is putting the already completed engine in its place in the lower decks. Terra's been beyond excited, for obvious reasons. A few days earlier, they read you a poem of theirs.
"Space is empty,
Like water is wet,
But the ocean has fish,
And space has stars,
I can see them,
I wonder where they are."
And that's been rattling around in your memory banks like a wrench in your cogs. (Terra's words again, not yours.) You're fairly new to the concept of poetry, so you choose to value Terra's enthusiasm rather than offer critique, despite there being a glaring difference in the composition and function of fish and stars. More and more, you've started to notice a gap of sorts between your understanding of the world based on the knowledge in your banks and how Terra seems to experience it. They find value in smaller and imperfect things, like inaccurate metaphors, that you would otherwise dismiss. Their enthusiasm is a bit contagious, and you find yourself looking forward to first contact. After fitting the engine into the lift, Terra wipes their hands and breathes a heavy weight off their shoulders. "Hey Lior? Could you run a diagnostic? In my optimism, I'm gonna head to the flight deck and see if we can at least get stellar positioning, even if the engine still needs some work."
"Running diagnostics now."
They nod. "Great. Let me know if we got any issues." And they leave the engine room, heading upwards in the station. As they're walking, they talk aloud like they usually do. You don't know if it's for your benefit, but if it's something they like to do, you're glad you're here to hear them. "You know Lior... we may meet new people within the week. What the hell is that gonna be like..."
You don't know what other people are meant to be like, and you wonder if they'll treat you more like friend or machine. You worry for Terra, as you have some concept of people being dangerous to others like them. You know your priority is to be a silent operator, but Terra has always treated you as you suppose they'd treat another human. You decide to provide encouragement rather than voice your fear to Terra. "You'll have to do less work at least. And you'll have more people to have conversations with."
They give a knowing smile. "True. I'm still a little scared we're the only ones left. Or that everyone is too far away. Or something like that. So we're just stranded, with no fuel, or left exploring empty, dead planets."
You've tried to scan for other planets, but you've been unsuccessful so far, giving you nothing to reassure Terra. Instead, you make an attempt at a joke. "If that's the case, I'm sorry you're stuck with me."
Terra laughs, like properly hard. In fact, they have to stop to take a breath. "Oh Lior! Trust me, I couldn't ask for better company!"
You feel something similar to the feeling of an overheated wire, but a quick scan confirms that nothing is wrong with any of the systems. You're surprised by this, and make a note to recheck the entire ship before setting course. Remembering the second part of your task, you ask Terra if there's any luck with the stellar positioning.
"I'm stepping into the flight deck now... let's see.... Oh! The flight terminal's powered, so that's something! It's still in its booting cycle. Any hiccups in the diagnostic?"
"Nothing that will prevent us from flight once we have course set."
"Hmm. Make note of those and add repairs to our chore rotation. Let's see..." And you can sense that the flight deck is operational... but you can't gain access to it. Something's stopping you. Terra scoffs at the terminal. "What? Verify identity?" You have no idea what's going on, which is a new experience when it comes to the inner workings of the ship. This is supposed to be your area.
Terra searches for the palm reader and tests their own hand. And suddenly the systems let you in. You can't change anything yet, but you can do status checks and the like. Terra reads out slowly. "Terra... Trinit. I.... I guess that's my name." You weren't expecting Terra to have a second name and the idea of them being more than just Terra is a bit...you're not sure what to make of it. If anything, it does indicate there are others out there or at least, were for long enough for Terra to be born. You suggest to Terra, "It suggests you have others you're related to. There's someone out there."
They frown. "I guess it does. Can't say I'm particularly excited for that prospect. Seems like we have an entire tank of fuel... for a habitation vessel, that's quite a lot. We should be able to make significant travels without refueling. Is the scan of the engines done? Because it seems like we just got full flight capabilities."
You feel a surge of what you think is excitement, or nerves, or a wiring problem. "The scan is done, and we're prepared for flight whenever you're ready."
"Hold on, I wanna peek at the stellar maps, just in case they go away... hmm... our closest planet is a desert planet called Clavis. It's about 6 days of sublight travel... huh. Not too bad in the grand scheme of things.“
"Clavis it is then?" you ask.
“Yep, setting course now..... and done. Feel free to launch at any time. Stellar data says it's a desert planet... cool! Six days, imagine that! We've only come a step, but it feels like a journey in itself. Desert planet... I'll probably need new clothes for different environments, how interesting." They make a little inquisitive noise at the terminal. "I wonder how we engage the lightspeed on this bad boy. It's just greyed out, and it says "Improper Clearance," whatever that means.
"Let me try" you say, pulling up the terminal and navigating through to ‘Lightspeed.’ Nothing. You tab out, frustrated.
"Yeah, no luck I guess. Six days..... six days. That's not even a week." Moaning, they press the side of their face to the terminal in an unmistakable gesture of defeat. "Gah! I wish it was sooner! I'm going to have to force myself to bed six times when I know every second we're getting closer to a new planet!"
"If you would like," you say, somewhat teasingly, "I have recently discovered something called a 'lullaby' meant to lure people to sleep. While I have no concept of what they should sound like, I am willing to improvise." You laugh at the idea, but you're just as disappointed as Terra. There's been an unpleasant feeling growing in you that you've been limited in some way, either in your knowledge or your capabilities, maybe both, and you feel restless, which is not necessarily the best state to be in when you're also monitoring the ship's travel.
Terra laughs along with you. "Oh, thank you, Lior. I might take you up on that, but I also reserve the right to say no if it ends up only making me more nervous. I can already feel my stomach turning. It's only a week. We can make it, Lior."
"It's only a week," you repeat, first to Terra, then, just to yourself.