This story was a short fiction commission. More info can be found here.
Christina breathes in the spiced scent of growing herbs as she stares out into the star-streaked space beyond the glass. Her breath, caught by awe, reminds her where she is with startling clarity: leaving home in a metal pocket of air, with only the starry void ahead. Of course she’s been on ships before, but never anything long-haul. Not like this. Prepared for six months of life, the spaceliner she’s found herself residing in is massive—and even, she quickly discovered, fitted with a large communal garden filling a dome that faces out onto space.
She’s not alone in the garden. A robot, pale blue and asymmetrically almost-humanoid, crouches beside a green tomato plant nearby, an electronic humming floating from its vocalizer. The robot seems to notice her attention, though it doesn’t look up.
“I would have thought all of you humans would be setting up their quarters,” it says to her, pressing its fingers delicately against a ripe, verdant fruit.
“I didn’t have much to unpack,” she says with a shrug.
The robot turns its elongated head to look at her, LED eyes flickering in a way that Christina thinks might be gleeful—if robots felt glee. “Neither did I.”
Christina opens her mouth to ask where the robot’s master is, or why it’s alone out here, when it stands abruptly and walks away, its electric mind apparently anywhere but on her.
She presses her lips together, wondering at the rudeness of this particular robot—all robots she’s ever known have been polite to the point of being infuriating. Still, she supposes, she’s heading to a whole new world, it’s not as if everything will be the same as what she’s used to.
Not even the robots.
She turns back to look out at space, watching the planet she’s lived her whole life on diminish into nothing. If rude robots are the worst part of this trip, she thinks, then it’s going to be a pretty uneventful ride.
It’s not until a week later that she realises how wrong she is.
The first sign appears just before dinner, as Christina lounges on her bunk with her tablet on her lap. While her new job—and new life—may be light years away, she still finds her mind filled with more little projects as the days go by. It’s not so much that she wants to keep her skills sharp, but more that now, especially with a daunting future ahead, falling into the flow of her programming helps quiet her thoughts.
She barely notices the lights flicker the first time, she’s so involved in solving a bug she can’t seem to find. The second flicker lasts longer, coupled with an electric hum that startles her from her reverie. Her fingers still on the keyboard, her eyes dart across the room to watch each light in turn. Just a small glitch, she thinks, waiting for another dimming of the lights she doesn’t expect to come.
With a hum-click, the lights blink out completely. The room is swallowed by darkness, except for the blue glow of the tablet that illuminates her with a soft aura. No light from the portholes, obviously, because the sun faces the other side of the ship at this time of ship-based day. Nothing, except the dark and the stars.
Slipping from her bed, she places the tablet facing the centre of her room to light her way. She climbs onto her desk to reach the air filtration system. With a relieved sigh, she finds the vents still releasing air as they should with a gentle breeze of life.
“Must just be the lights,” she murmurs, wondering why the backup generators hadn’t kicked in yet.
At that moment, the lights burst back to life in an explosion of brightness. She throws her hands across her eyes with a cry, but it’s hardly needed because the lights are out again only seconds later. As her eyes readjust to the darkness once more, she jumps down from her desk and picks up her tablet, holding it before her as a torch. The after-image of the lights burns across her vision, making it hard to pick out the details of her cabin.
The confused murmur of the other residents of the ship flows into her room the moment she opens the door. She notices the tall robot from the first day, standing calmly at the edge of the growing crowd with glowing eyes. An old woman, recognizing Christina as someone who knows her way around electronics, waves her down as she passes by.
“Do you know what’s happening?” the woman asks.
“Probably just a minor glitch,” Christina replies, smiling kindly. “Don’t you worry about it.”
“Hard not to worry about glitches when you’re in the middle of space,” the woman laughs.
“I know, but try not to think about it too much,” Christina says.
“If you say so.” The woman pats her shoulder, wrinkled hand still strong. “I’ll believe you, sweetie.”
Extricating herself gently from the woman’s grasp, Christina continues along the hallways of the ship until she finds a door with a sign that reads engineering. Her first day on the ship, she’d made an effort to track this particular door down, though she’d been too nervous to enter.
This time, she knocks.
The door opens, creaking slightly, and a young woman’s head, clouded with short curls, pokes out to glare at Christina.
Christina gestures upwards. “The lights—”
“Yes, I know about the lights,” the girl snaps. “It’s dark in here, too. What do you want?”
At that question, Christina looks down at her feet—not that she can see them clearly in the dark. She feels suddenly anxious, especially under the scrutinising eyes of the small woman.
“I wanted to see if I could help,” Christina says. “I know my way a little around ship systems, maybe I could take a look?”
“Well,” says the girl, raising her eyebrows, “whatever it is isn’t hardware, and that’s all I know. You might as well give it a go. Just don’t break life support.”
Her face disappears from view, then the door opens fully, allowing Christina to step into a room about as messy as the woman’s hair. The woman extends a gloved hand and introduces herself as Poppy, then guides Christina to one of the consoles before flopping down into a nearby chair. Newer than Christina is used to, the console flickers with status lights, its screen one of the few sources of light in the room.
“Don’t you know how to use this?” Christina asks.
“Nah,” Poppy says. “Our usual smart-gal’s broken her collarbone—she’s conked out in the medbay right now while it quick-heals. We thought it’d be fine for her to take a break for a few days, stuff like this almost never happens.” She tilts her head, jerking a thumb at a machine built into the wall. “Not sure why the generator ain’t starting—I don’t think the problem is that power can’t get to the lights, but that the lights don’t think they should be on. In any case, there’s nothing wrong with the generator or the electronics that I can find. I think the problem’s in the computer, if that makes sense?”
“Uh, kind of,” Christina says, frowning as she deciphers Poppy’s words. With a quick back-stretch, she taps at the screen to orient herself. A different system to what she’s worked with before, but that’s never been a hurdle for her before and it’s hardly one now. It doesn’t take her long to break past the security barriers to query the ship’s computer and find the problem: a new command in the system that shouldn’t be there. With a flurry of typing fingers, she nudges the computer back to how it should be. She then closes her eyes tight in
The lights flare back into life, still burning her eyes even behind her eyelids. Poppy exclaims in mixed shock and pain.
“Could’ve given me a warning,” she hisses, though her words are far from angry. She’s pleased with the problem being fixed, despite her momentary blindness. Christina rubs her eyes and grins at the other woman, pride filling her chest.
Not that the problem was hard for her to fix. She has no doubt in her mind that the person who usually looks after this stuff wouldn’t have had any problems with it either—what she does wonder, however, is how exactly the ship’s computer was changed to kill the lights.
And, an even bigger question: why was it changed?
Poppy shrugs when Christina voices her questions, saying, “It was probably just an accident. Can’t see why anyone would do that on purpose.”
“Maybe,” Christina says, but she has a feeling accident is the wrong word for what happened. The glitch was a warning, or perhaps a sign of worse to come. She doesn’t say any of this to the other woman, but she thinks it regardless.
Only days later, she sees the robot again. This time, she’s baking in one of the communal kitchens, whiling away her time with butter, sugar, and a little bit of spaceship-grown lavender.
“Hello,” she says cheerfully as the robot enters the room, looking rather awkward with its elongated arms.
“Hello, human,” the robot says. Its eyes flicker down to watch her work the batter, it seems entranced by her movements.
“You know, I do have a name,” Christina says.
“Do you? I never would have guessed,” the robot says dryly. It approaches the bench and stands across from her, still watching her hands. “I think I have a name, too.”
“What’s your name, then?”
“Blue.” The robot tilts its head. “Don’t laugh.”
“I’m not laughing,” Christina says, smothering a chuckle. “Your master not very original?”
Christina eyes Blue questioningly. “How do you not know?”
“I have a new owner I have not met yet, though I do not like the sound of him. My previous owner died a month ago.”
Any laughter left drains from Christina. She almost thinks she can hear sorrow in Blue’s voice. “Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Why? It’s not your fault I am here,” Blue says, matter-of-fact. It rolls its shoulders in an approximated shrug, then points a long finger at the batter. “What are you making?”
“Cookies, I hope. I’m kind of winging them though, so they might not work.” Christina laughs, prodding at the batter. LED eyes narrowing into what could be a frown, Blue leans over the bench and inspects the batter.
“Could use a little more sugar,” it says. With that one suggestion, Blue straightens up and wanders away, distracted by something new. Christina watches it go, leaning her chin on her hand as she tries to figure out what exactly the robot is trying to find.
Blue disappears through a door. With a sigh, Christina gives up on the robot and gets back to baking. She scoops up a tablespoon of sugar and eyes the batter warily, wondering whether Blue was trying to be helpful, or only hoping to mess with her. Only one way to find out, she decides, pouring the sugar crystals into the mix.
She finds, upon retrieving the golden cookies from the oven and taking a too-hot bite from one, that Blue was completely correct. A perfect amount of sugar. She chews the cookie, wondering what exactly Blue is about.
With a groan of metal, the ship suddenly shudders and jerks beneath her feet. She grabs the bench to steady herself, watching with dismay as her cookies tumble to the ground.
“Another glitch—?” she asks the air, clinging to the bench as the ship jerks again. Instinctively, she can tell that the emergency brakes are firing in bursts, slowing the ship from its lightspeed travel at a quicker rate than normal.
Glancing at her ruined cookies one final time, Christina pushes off from the bench and stumbles to the hallway. She holds herself against the wall as she makes her way to engineering, passing other passengers who’ve chosen to simply sit on the floor and wait for the judders to stop.
Poppy lets her in straight away, no words needed, and Christina finds herself in engineering with a silver-haired woman wearing the crisp uniform of a captain.
“Captain Inze,” Poppy whispers into her ear, though it’s unnecessary. Christina already knows the Captain—everyone currently residing on the ship does, since they were all introduced to her when they boarded. Christina simply nods in acknowledgment, then smiles at Inze.
“You’re the one who helped with the lights, aren’t you?” Inze asks.
“Yeah, that’s her,” Poppy says. “She’s pretty smart.”
“Hmm.” Inze looks Christina over, steel eyes lingering over every small detail of her. “Do you think you can help with this? I’m sure you’ve already figured out what’s going on.”
“Of course,” Christina says, as answer to both the captain’s question and her statement.
Christina thought she’d felt awkward last time she was here, but having the Captain watching her as she approaches the console fills her veins with anxious ice. The majority of her knows she’s good with computers, that she can fix whatever needs to be fixed—but there’s a small voice in her head that tells her she’s going to embarrass herself, that Inze will kick her off the ship for making things worse.
Poppy nudges her arm with an elbow, leaning close to murmur a quick, “You’ll be fine.”
“Thanks,” she breathes, placings her hands on the console.
This time, it takes much longer for her to find a solution to the problem—almost as if she’s being challenged, she thinks. Someone pushing against her, seeing where her limits are and what they can get away with.
She shakes her head at the thought: it couldn’t possibly be her that’s being tested. Nobody except Poppy and Izne know she’s helping out in engineering, and there’s no way anyone could have planned her being the one to help in the first instance.
If she is being tested, this problem sure isn’t the one to stump her. She digs into the computer and rewrites the problem, soothing the ship back into its planned trajectory with a little assistance from Izne. Christina can tell from the ship’s code that it’s agitated by the glitches happening to it; the poor thing expected a normal, simple journey just like every previous trip. She doesn’t mention this fact to Izne: either the Captain knows already, or she’s not the kind of captain to care. Not many people worry about the programmed minds they rely on, and Christina’s learned before that trying to make humans think about their machines only ends in confusion and annoyance.
She pats the console softly, hoping the ship understands that she cares, even if nobody else does. A small, green light winks at her.
The tension in Izne’s shoulders visibly melts away as the shuddering smooths out, and the usual calm of the ship’s engines returns. Poppy ruffles her own hair, grinning toothily.
“Thank you,” Izne says, taking Christina’s hand to shake. “You didn’t have to do that, but I appreciate that you did anyway.”
“No problem,” Christina says, half-mumbling. “It’s what I do.”
Izne pats her hand, then releases her. “I should get back to the bridge. Let me know if you have any issues, Poppy.”
“Will do, Cap,” Poppy says, mock-saluting. Izne chuckles as she glides from the room, and Christina can’t help but smile at the easy camaraderie between the Captain and her crew. If the people at her new job are half as nice as the workers on this ship, she figures she’ll settle in just fine.
As she wanders back to the kitchen—her mind on Izne, Poppy, and the ship’s computer—Christina almost walks smack-bang into Blue, the robot appearing suddenly from around a corner.
“Ah,” Blue says, almost an electronic gasp, “perhaps you should watch where you’re going. Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m fine,” Christina says, folding her arms across her chest. Something about Blue niggles at her, though she can’t figure out exactly what yet.
“I cleaned up your mess.” Blue tilts its head in the direction of the kitchen. “Did the sugar work?”
“Yeah, it did,” Christina says, confused at the robot’s continued helpfulness. “Thank you.”
“Would you like assistance making a new batch?” asks Blue, somehow looking even more awkward than usual at asking the question.
Frowning, Christina attempt to read the Blue’s face. She can’t, but she tries anyway. “Okay,” she says slowly. “Sure.”
Blue, as it turns out, is a quick mixer, having no arm muscles to ache or cramp from overuse.
As Christina leans against the bench to watch the robot, she wonders if maybe Blue is simply looking for a companion on the long voyage. It did say that it recently lost its master. Do robots get lonely? she wonders.
After a companionable silence, Blue eventually lays down its spoon and looks right back at Christina.
“Where are you going?” it asks. “Why are you here?”
“I’m heading to a new job, and a new life, I guess,” Christina says. Blue silently waits for her to continue. “I’m going to be working on programming ship computers, mostly.” She pauses, finding it weird to talk to a robot about creating robot minds.
“I see,” Blue says.
“What about you?”
Eyes flickering, Blue glances down at its hands. “I am being sent to a new owner, who runs many of the corporations that are destroying the environment on at least five habitable planets. I disagree with what they do, and what they will make me do, but I have no choice but to go.”
“I… see,” Christina says, eyebrows raised at the robot’s honesty. “That doesn’t seem fair.”
“When is the life of a robot ever fair?” Blue asks. “We do what we’re told.” The robot lowers its gaze. “I am done here. Farewell for now.”
Christina chews at her lip as she watches Blue leave abruptly once more. This is what has been weighing on her mind since meeting Blue: the robot’s open honesty. No robot can lie, of course, but Blue seems to speak its mind in a confronting way. It doesn’t want to preserve any human’s feelings with delicacy, not when no human has bothered to worry about its own.
Only later, as she sits in her bunk chewing on a cookie and typing away at her tablet, does she wonder where Blue goes when it wanders off. A large part of her—the part that’s endlessly curious about the inner workings of programmed minds—urges her to get up and find Blue, to solve the mystery of the wandering robot. It’s not like she’s got anything better to do anyway, she thinks.
Her first idea is to check the kitchen again, but she finds only a family with two small children cooking a meal together. No robots to be seen, simply people happy in each other’s company. She drifts along the hallways, checking empty rooms and communal spaces for Blue, wondering what kind of places a tall robot could hide.
Christina finally catches sight of Blue in the garden, the robot kneeling ungracefully at the other side of the dome. It faces away from Christina, unaware of her watching it as it crouches among the grass. She approaches quietly, carefully trying to lean around to see what Blue is doing without being noticed.
That is when the temperature drops, plunging so suddenly that Christina’s next breath frosts the air. She cries out in surprise, wrapping her arms across her body to try to conserve heat. Blue looks around at her cry, its own eyes bright with surprise.
“Christina?” it asks, standing swiftly. “What are you doing here?”
“I w-was looking for you,” Christina stammers, her teeth chattering. She looks between Blue’s thin, articulated legs to see an open port in the ground, no doubt linked to the ship’s systems. A patch of fake grass has been pulled away to reveal the port, and Christina can’t help but notice the very real dirt coating Blue’s fingers. Blue looks between her and the port, its shoulders lowering.
“It was you,” Christina says. “You’ve been causing the glitches.”
“Yes,” Blue admits, unable to lie—or perhaps simply not wanting to. “And you have been fixing them.”
Rubbing her arms, Christina blinks at the robot. “Why are you doing this? You’re not trying to kill us,” she says, knowing her statement to be true. If Blue wanted the humans on the ship dead, they’d already be in their graves.
Blue shifts on its feet, looking down at the soil dirtying its hands rather than at Christina. “I wanted the ship to turn around. I assumed that if there were enough issues… it would have to. We are closer still to home than our destination.”
“Oh,” Christina breathes, understanding finally just how intensely Blue doesn’t want to be delivered to its new owner. The robot wasn’t simply complaining to her, it wanted out. “I get it,” she says.
“And now you are going to stop me,” Blue says, words heavy with defeat. Christina considers for a moment, eyes flashing. “No,” she says. “Well—yes, I’m going to stop you from damaging the ship. But I’m not going to turn you in, nor am I going to let you go to your new owner. I wouldn’t do that to anyone. I know you don’t want to hurt the people on this ship.”
The robot’s head snaps up to look at her, eyes brightening. “What?”
Grinning now, Christina continues; “I know how to program ship minds, I’m sure it won’t be hard to change your mind around so you aren’t bound to an owner.”
“That’s illegal,” Blue says, and Christina hears the smirk in its words. She’s growing to like this robot.
“We’ll have to sneak you off the ship when we disembark, but… I’m sure we’ll figure something out by then.” She gestures at the port. “Could you bring the temperature back up again, please? It’s too cold to think.”
“You really won’t turn me in?”
“If I was going to, I would’ve done it by now.” Christina holds out a hand to the robot.
“You’re going to have to trust me if you want me messing with your brain. Do you trust me?”
Blue doesn’t speak or move for a long moment, though its eyes flicker with thought. Slowly, it takes her hand.
“Yes. I trust you.”
“Good, now heat this place up.”
Poppy eyes Blue with suspicion, but doesn’t question Christina when she says the robot helped her permanently fix the issues with the ship. Not a lie on Christina’s part, so much as an omission of the fact Blue also originally caused the problems. Poppy also doesn’t question it when Christina asks to use the tools in the room to rewrite parts of Blue’s mind.
Afterwards, Christina’s feet lead her back to the garden. She crushes basil leaves between her fingers and lets the small drift around her like a cloud. She’s exhausted, but too wired to go back to her cabin to sleep. Blue finds her there in the garden, where they first met, and stands beside her as she watches the stars outside.
“So, where are you going to go now that you’re free?” Christina asks. Blue tilts its head her way, eyes flashing.
“I was thinking I’d stick with you,” it says.
“Me?” She can’t hide her surprise. “Why?”
“Hmm,” the robot hums, placing a hand against the glass of the dome. “I don’t think I’ve had a friend before. It would be nice to not lose my only one.” Blue gives her a blank-faced look. “Besides, who else will stop you from ruining your baking?”