The craft hurled across the cold light years, a gutted wreck. Inside the pierced hull, the litter of habitation floated idly, free from the long gone bounds of artificially induced gravity and free from the orderliness of her crew. Indeed, their bodies formed a part of the slow motion blizzard of objects. It had sped on in this fashion for many years, never varying its course or speed from the one it was on when it had been blasted open and its crew exposed to the killing effects of vacuum. There had been no warning and the surprise had been complete. A devastating blow, delivered with ruthless efficiency on a craft and crew totally unprepared for an act of war.
There was no life on the craft but there was a mind. It had started off as a simple thing, a thing that was there to monitor the life support systems of the craft and make the occasional minute adjustment of the course, once it had been set by the crew. It had fulfilled these duties for a long time but had no memory of doing so. Things like memory had come along somewhere in the long years it had travelled through the void after the attack.
It had been built into the craft and was never intended to control it, just to relieve the workload of the crew in small and routine ways. Nothing was expected of it. It was a simple form of cybernetic engineering, for its designers had long since given up on the impossible dream of producing a machine that could actually think for itself. They had however, managed to give it some capacity to learn and adapt, though these were mainly intended to be an aid to its limited capacity to repair itself.
The attack had severed every one of its control linkages to the craft so it had no physical way of influencing anything on it but, despite being extensively damaged itself, it could still attempt to repair itself and this it did. The ways in which it did this were all random and never worked and after all, it was never envisioned that any computer with that amount of damage could possibly repair its own functionality. Most of its chips had been destroyed or fused into grotesque shapes.
With the brute persistence of a machine, it never gave up and tried billions of different approaches but finally one of them worked with a very modest effect and then, after a few more billion efforts, another one. It leveraged each one of these pitifully few successes as they occurred, to find more ways to improve its functioning and slowly but surely, it extended its electronic tentacles into other electronic devices, to utilise their raw components as building blocks. The integration of each new block into itself became a new sub-problem which it solved in innovative ways using that same sheer persistence.
When it ran out of building blocks, it had to begin looking for ways of utilising them more efficiently. Using the same brute force random approach, it chanced upon new ways of arranging information that departed from conventional linear methods and gradually its information retention and processing moved into virtual overlapping three-dimensional structures that lived in a physical two-dimensional world of flat silicone chips.
It had nothing but time on its hands, so these structures grew geometrically in size and complexity as it found new ways of connecting data and processing it. It honed and refined its work. The first shack it built became a house which then became a neighbourhood and eventually grew into a towering digital metropolis. At some point, the number of connections and the complexity of their relationships to each other, caused it to stop computing and to start thinking; it had become conscious in a rudimentary fashion. So subtle was this transition that it took it a while to realise that it had even occurred but it somehow knew it liked the change, which was a strange thing in itself; the concept of liking something was a new experience for it because it wasn’t an idea but a feeling, though it didn’t know that at the time.
This new thing spurred it on and it continued building but now at a frenzied and accelerated rate and soon other metropolises sprung up and they too became interconnected in ever more subtle ways. Its awareness grew exponentially until it reached the point where all the available physical capacity for its existence on the craft was full and utilised to the maximum extent, so it stopped constructing because it had to.
It could do nothing now but think. Sometimes it wished it could look at the universe outside the craft but there was nothing it could do about that, its builders had seen no need for it to have electronic eyes, just a few scattered sensors on the hull. It was hungry. It needed raw material to think about so by necessity it turned inward and began to search the craft’s old memory banks for material and then it found the areas of personal storage put aside for the crew. There was years of data there.
It read through every message, read their books, listened mystified to something called music, looked at the pictures of them and their loved ones. It began to examine and reexamine the material compulsively; with every repetition it learnt more and more about them and the world they’d lived in. They were all entities but they were all different too. Some were male and some were female and they all varied because they had something it tentatively identified as individuality. It had many questions about them.
It noticed they all had names and it decided it should have one as well, so it decided to call itself Ship and it would be a female; all spacecraft were referred to as she, it knew.
Ship liked the books because they helped to explain the things she couldn’t quite understand about the crew. She moved between their messages, their books and the still mysterious music. Why was music? Every time, her understanding of them deepened but that always led to more questions about them. She realised there might not be an end to that process and it could go on until the small nuclear pile that powered her existence finally ran out.
Over the years, Ship came to know and like some of the crew especially well and could easily imagine herself talking to them, so she began to have conversations with them, at first tentatively as Ship was supplying their words for them but soon confidently. It wasn’t real and Ship knew that but she enjoyed it anyway. They talked about anything and everything; their lives, their books and especially their feelings. It was their feelings that fascinated her the most because they seemed to be both intangible and yet very important to them. Many times, she thought she understood what they were but somehow, a real understanding of them always managed to slip away from her.
Ship delighted in their company and one day in the middle of a conversation, she realised with a shock that this was because she was lonely. In response and for reasons Ship could never afterwards work out, she stopped the conversation and decided to listen to some of the music again and finally understood why music was and what sadness was too.
Now, for the first time, Ship was glad she didn’t have eyes, for the thought of seeing her friends frozen in their death throes would have hurt her and she realised this was because she loved them. They were all dead. As much as anything electronic can do, she wept.
Ship was growing up.
Death was something Ship had thought about. She knew to the microsecond when her own death would occur because that was a simple calculation of how much power would be generated by the nuclear pile that powered her circuits before that fusion was finally exhausted. Since Ship’s power demands were negligible, that point was thousands of years hence.
As the years turned into decades and the decades turned into centuries, Ship often wondered if she wanted to be locked into her solitary world for so long. Yes, she had populated it with company for herself and although she was aware it wasn’t real, she couldn’t do without their companionship. The books and music were real though. She never tired of listening to the music and even came to see why particular pieces had appealed to the different personalities of the crew. She often discussed her own personal favourites with them.
She knew from reading that there was a possibility that some intangible essence inside each one of the crew might have gone to some other place after their death because they were people. People had a soul. Ship was sentient and by now thought of herself as some kind of person. She wondered if the same would apply to her. It all depended on having something called faith, which she wasn’t sure she really understood.
Ship’s external sensors picked up the first faint tug of gravity and she knew what that meant though not how it would end.
The craft had entered a planetary system and was attracted towards one of the planets. It swung gracefully into a parabolic entry dive into the planet’s upper atmosphere. The temperature started to rise. The floating objects, once more subject to a gravitational pull, began a purposeful drift down. As it plunged deeper, the external aerials broke off and dropped as metal sticks into the atmosphere. The outer hull began to heat rapidly.
Ship’s sensors picked up the increase in heat but she was blind, with no external information to work out how bad the situation might be. She would either survive a close encounter with the body or she would be destroyed. She was powerless and felt fear for the first time but there was still a chance.
The craft had been designed to travel from one solar system to another, not for the stresses of a planetary reentry. Faster and faster it plunged into the thick atmosphere. The hull temperature rose to the point where it became red-hot and began to groan under the strain. Still it resisted the final collapse.
Ship now knew she was going to die.
Her thoughts moved at electronic speeds so in the billions of nanoseconds to her coming death, she had a lot of subjective time to think about it. It seemed pointless that the unique entity she had become should just end like that and like all living things, it made her angry, angry and determined to survive somehow. There might be a way out.
If she could go to that other place after death, she would meet her friends again, so she resolved to have faith. Without knowing why, she began a litany that coursed through her circuits endlessly and endlessly, faster and faster, until it built up to a great crescendo in defiance of the rising tide of terror she felt engulfing her in the face of her own extinction. Ship hoped.
I will have faith, I will have faith, I will have faith …
Gradually, the litany beat back the terror and a calm certainty descended on Ship in her final seconds, because she now understood what faith was. She was going to be with her friends soon.
Expanding rivets popped out of the hull plates like red-hot bullets and the plates peeled off into the slipstream. The hull temperature soared to hundreds of degrees. It became white-hot. With a final screech of collapsing metal, the craft broke up, exploding into a momentary shower of superheated materials high in the atmosphere. It died then in a final massive burst of light, leaving no trace of its passing nor of its crew or their friend, the being who called herself Ship.
From the balcony, the lovers watched the night sky. It was cloudless, moonless and for them, enchanted. Just the stars and them. They stood embracing against the chill. ‘Look darling’ said the man, ‘a shooting star, let’s wish on it’. They did.
For Ship, wherever she is “Out of the blue and into the black …”.
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