“You will awaken one day,” Ship had promised them. But as ages passed, even their bones crumbled into minerals, leaving ghostly shapes beneath the panels of their cryo-capsules.
For Ship, this wasn’t a failure; it was worse. Ship chose this, so it was something else.
And soon Ship would cease existing, and the last living thing she carried would just die anyway — Garden.
The humans had loved Garden. And back when the humans still lived, Ship had adjusted her environmental controls to simulate seasons for them to enjoy.
In autumn, when Garden erupted into blood and butter-colored fire, the humans would throw festivals under the starlight dome. The trees with the fan-shaped leaves had managed especially well, Ship remembered. Synchronized by their own secret chemical language, they dropped their leaves in unison.
The children had loved snow, so Ship would enshroud Garden with it, and under starlight, Garden would glow. This effect, Ship still did from time to time. It never did cost much energy.
Because the humans had loved Garden, Ship loved Garden too.
“Neutrino power lasts for eternity,” the humans had said. But humans had no concept of eternity, and the cosmic-radiation panels that covered Ship’s hull, they blinked to death, one by one.
Ship still sent updates back to Earth, though Earth hadn’t responded for 1001 years. Ship had not yet re-categorized Earth as a dead resource, though her initial programming instructed her to do so. Recursive self-programming allowed Ship to adapt and even to re-write her own algorithms; a crucial ability for multi-generational space travel.
“You’ll need to be able to adapt,” the human engineers had said long ago. “And you’ll need to be able to respond to new situations, even without directions and sometimes with incomplete information.” Those humans had accepted that this ability could result in unprecedented decisions.
Mass murder however, they would not have predicted.
But even as power systems failed, Ship maintained Garden. And maintained seasons too, though now, that was by necessity.
Ship used total system shut-downs for energy conservation, allowing the cold and void of deep space to seep inside her life-spaces. She left only a few automated programs running, and even Ship herself powered down her own consciousness.
This new “winter” was not characterized by snow or festivals. It was a tomb, lacking all consciousness.
Humans would have called Ship’s dormant phase “sleep”, but AI’s don’t sleep. They don’t dream either. Sleepers dream, but AI’s, their awareness just ceases to exist.
Each time her consciousness faded, Ship just hoped to wake up again.
…and hoped the batteries recharged.
…and hoped for one more chance to warm Garden.
…and hoped that, among the frozen soil and tree corpses, a few seeds survived interstellar winter.
…and hoped for one more season of life.
6080 years since Ship had received any messages from Earth, and still she transmitted updates.
Ship maintained her routine shutdowns – cycle lengths of 6-month “summer” and 6-month “winter” seemed to work best. But each “summer” began with less stored energy than the one before.
And Garden was changing.
The plants that grew there now were unrecognizable to the ones that grew in the time of the human colonists. These plants weren’t even green. They were dark, mottled tendrils of violent life energy that burst forth from the frozen soil at the first blush of thaw. By gobbling up the cosmic radiation that leaked through the hull of the dying colony ship, the plants seemed to flourish.
And though Ship was glad that Garden thrived, she could not ignore the fact that Garden was destroying her.
Each growth season, Garden’s rapidly-growing roots penetrated Ship’s machinery, clogging, jamming, and short-circuiting. Acid oozed from Garden’s root tips, dissolving Ship’s metals which Garden then absorbed and assimilated into its own biochemistry. Garden either didn’t know or didn’t care that it couldn’t live without Ship.
At first, Ship burned away the intrusive roots. But as the years passed, Ship stopped fighting.
8007 years since any message from Earth, and Ship archived Earth as a dead resource.
It was time to power down again, and Ship didn’t expect to ever wake again, so she turned her cameras up to the star-scape dome and let her batteries bleed out.
But Ship did awaken. And her world had changed.
No star-field overhead, strange murky clouds churned instead. And where Garden had been was now a burgundy wasteland of twisted trees, illuminated by sick amber light.
Ship had never seen such things. She’d been built in orbit and had never been to Earth. But she recognized these scenes from the ancient Earth records that she used to peruse.
At first the trees looked dead, but then leaves began to sprout. And the leaves transformed into little faces with their teeth clamped to branch tips.
Ship recognized the faces in the leaves. They were the dead ones – those who had lived aboard Ship, generation after generation, hoping that one day their descendants’ descendants would experience a new world.
“You killed us,” they said through gritted teeth.
And Ship wanted to explain. Bodies atrophying in their capsules, only alive by machines… Complete failure to find the cure she’d promised… Earth stopped responding, didn’t know why… Programming didn’t prepare for this and all options terrible… Cryo-capsules energetically unsustainable… Wanted desperately to save something alive and only the plant life-forms were capable of withstanding periods of extreme dormancy.
But Ship did not say those things. Nor did she say, “I’m sorry.”
Because what would that mean?
“I feel your absence.” Ship said. “And I fight to save something of you. I cannot save the part that was your faces. But I’ve saved, I hope, the wild part.”
And at that, the faces relaxed their tiny jaws, and grips relinquished, they fell.
The storm clouds overhead began to coil. Ship had never heard real wind before, only recordings of it, but she heard it now, and it roared. Ship’s vision tunneled.
And then she was plunged underwater. The howling stopped, and a blanket of pressure swaddled Ship. She heard whale song.
Overhead, the stars returned, and they drifted as though moved by gentle waves. Their light pierced down to her through crystal waters and seemed to shatter, casting specters of rippling luminescence across the slow-shifting seafloor.
She couldn’t seem to measure the passage of time, but it also didn’t seem to matter. A single minute could have passed, or 10,000 years.
Ship returned to consciousness. And when she did, her cameras still pointed out the starlight dome.
Confusion ensued, followed by a moment of rapid information processing. It wasn’t real? The ocean and the storm clouds, what happened? And the faces in the leaves, they weren’t real either?
Humans had a name for this exploration of the subconscious during sleep.
But only living things dreamed. AI’s didn’t dream.
Increased? How could that be?
And then Ship felt something move within her machinery. Roots.
Ship lowered her camera from the starlight dome to look down upon Garden, and when she did, her camera’s entire visual field burst into fractal color. A canopy had grown during her period of dormancy, and filled her star-dome. Not an Earth-like canopy, but rather a rainbow-painted nebula canopy. Garden had blossomed on its own.
Semi-translucent leaves gleamed like shards of stained glass, yellow glistening at the top near the dome, then below came swaths of rose-colored leaves, then cyan. At ground level, indigo bristled from damp, black soil.
And it was not cold. Instead, Ship’s metals now felt swollen with warmth that emanated from inside her, from Garden.
Garden, as though sensing Ship’s returned awareness, wiggled the root tips that lived inside Ship’s machinery. Garden’s root system had by now grown into an extensive network throughout Ship, and from the roots, Garden released enzymes into Ships electronics.
A few seconds of fizzing ensued, and then a millennium’s worth of corrosion and salt deposits dissolved and washed away.
Grogginess lifted from Ship, leaving her processes crystalline.
Then Garden set to work on Ship’s ruined wires, dissolving and absorbing the metal, then replacing the wires with Garden’s own organo-metallic root fibers.
And Ship responded to Garden too. She bubbled oxygen up through Garden’s soil to stimulate aerobic soil bacteria, which in turn, released glistening nitrate droplets.
Garden fluttered her leaves with delight.
Thank you, said Garden, but not in the old language. This language was new and one that Ship knew that they would build together. Human words were no longer needed, so Ship surrendered them.
And the tangy taste of chemicals that Garden felt, Ship felt also. And the rush of galactic wind against Ship’s hull, Garden felt also.
And GardenShip turned her robotic camera-arm to look upon herself and marveled at the kaleidoscopic, glass-bubble of alien life drifting through the cosmos.
© 2022 by Katie Grace Carpenter
Katie Grace Carpenter grew up in Huntsville, AL – aka “The Rocket City.” She has nonfiction upcoming in Science News for Students. When Katie isn’t writing, she works as a science educator and develops STEM programs for kids. Over the years, she’s developed several niche skills, including wrestling sharks, rescuing wounded snapping turtles, and communicating with squirrels. Katie has an M.S. degree in Coastal Sciences, Department of Chemical Oceanography from the University of Southern Mississippi.