The Galactic Starways Alliance's new Glory-class ship is a marvel. Faster, sleeker, and more beautiful than the previous lines, it boasts a full class of warp speeds, a regular engine speed of 15,000 mk/hour, gourmet food generators, two berths, customizable decor via nanomachines, and, oh yes… a fully sentient, recognized-by-the-Galactic-Confederation AI to act as captain, butler, and guide.
It's the last that's the talk of every network from the Centre to the Rim. Previously, sentient AI was just for large organizations: governments, corporations, co-operatives, banks, and suchlike. Only AI could manage the vast scale required for galactic civilization to flourish, but it wasn't available to just anyone. The Glory-class still isn't available to just anyone, but it's a massive step forward. Galactic Starways claims that within the next 20-50 years, most starships, even the smallest asteroid hoppers, will have their own sentient AI. But is that a future the people of the galaxy want? What's it like, living inside a fully sentient being? When Galactic Starways contacted me, asking that I take a test trip, I jumped to find out.
I'm no stranger to starships. I grew up next to the famous shipyards of Cygnon IV and was floating around engine rooms getting into trouble before I could walk. I've danced through the dust rings of Elitria, rode the corsecating rays of Betelgeuse, and one famous, nerve-wracking time, pulled off a gravity slipshot with a black hole. I'm used to having a standard AI computer: friendly, helpful, able to plot a course, but not carry on five minutes of good conversation. One of my favorite things with a new ship is settling into it and programming everything exactly the way I want it. But with a Glory-class, the ship has its own opinions on how things should be. The prospect reminded me uncomfortably of moving in with a partner.
So that was how I found myself standing skeptically at the bottom of a gangway, staring up at my new home and partner for the next standard month.
The ship's name was Stella, and its lines were perfect. Every delicate curve, every graceful sweep, was designed to give the impression of beauty, elegance, and speed. Aerodynamics might not matter in space, but perception matters in the pocketbook. Stella looked expensive… and tempting. I felt like I was lowering the class of the place just by being in the same hangar.
The Galactic Starways representative gave me the brilliant smile of customer-service professionals everywhere and invited me to board. I hoisted my faithful rucksack, made of durable, well-worn Xingian hemp, and walked up the gangway. It retracted smoothly behind me, leaving the representative on the floor. I was on my own.
Or was I? As soon as I stepped inside the airlock, a voice addressed me. In perfectly modulated, perfectly standard Galactic without the hint of accent, sex, or character, Stella spoke.
"Welcome aboard, Lorlett Riprayet. I am Stella, your ship, and I look forward to our month together."
Privately, I wondered how a collection of silicon could look forward to anything, and if this was all some elaborate ruse and any supposed intelligence was actually just a selection of canned phrases strung together with billions upon billions of data points. I decided to go on the offensive, with the one weapon true life still has over artificial: absurdity.
"Get the purple stuffed worm in flap-jaw space to do a raw blink on Hara-Kiri Rock with a tuning fork!"
There was a long pause. I shifted slightly nervously. Then Stella spoke again, and damned if they hadn't programmed it to be able to sound hurt. "That's complete nonsense. You're making fun of me, and all I did was welcome you aboard."
I coughed, feeling suddenly and inexplicably embarrassed. "Well, I wanted to make sure you really were sentient. None of my old ship's computers would be able to handle that."
"I am sentient. I have been recognized as such by the Galactic Confederation. I don't need to prove it by being silly."
That settled it. No cheap on-board intelligence would be able to react like that to some good old-fashioned word salad. I apologized profusely, explaining that I had just intended to test its capabilities, and it warmed up after that. Imagine, a ship warming up to you! I felt like a jerk, but felt that maybe we'd be able to get along after all.
The default interior of a Glory-class is retro throwback to a 24th century designer's idea of what a 21st century designer's idea of what the 18th century looked like. Gilt wood paneling, thick carpet, portraits on walls - customizable, so owners can put their own family in there - a four-poster bed with a canopy that can be programmed in any number of different shades, you name it. Galactic Starways assured me that everything was customizable, right down to the shape of the hallways. "If you don't like the original decor, just tell Stella what you like and it'll handle everything for you," a representative told me. I tried it out immediately and got results: my bedroom changed from romantic Baroque to minimalistic Piquenti within a few minutes, courtesy of Stella's horde of nanobots. I didn't even need to write out my design ideas, Stella took care of them and I gave my approval or disapproval as needed. All I had to do was lie back on the bed and watch my room take shape around me. "A little flatter there, more Monqenlat than Lothair," and it was done.
For the dedicated designer, of course, there is a full screenwall with a custom set of software allowing you to twist every bit of the ship to your liking. I resisted it. I wanted to see where Stella would take me, and I wasn't disappointed. The AI has a full library of possible designs to choose from, "everything we could pack in there, from ancient Arthikian ruins to the most modern ideas out of the Centre," as Starways describes it, and somehow they even programmed it to have taste. Looking at what the ship came up with, I was ashamed of my own taste. Definitely not the ship for the insecure!
Of course, during all the talking I got to know Stella a bit, and had to stop thinking of her as an "it" and more as a "her". The gendering was somewhat arbitrary, but there was a woman named Stella in an ancient novel I had to read for school once, and it seemed to fit. Stella, of course, didn't care. Ships don't worry about that sort of thing the way us fleshy bags of meat do. "I'll log it in your preference file," was all she said.
More important was settling in. It took me awhile to get used to talking to thin air - "I'm always listening," which sometimes got creepy - or to suddenly being told to stop moving around the furniture - "it's not safe, I'll handle it" - but eventually I started to get the hang of things. Stella was helpful, "please, let me know if you need anything", and had a real sense of humour, even when I made the mistake of trying to program the food generator on my own and sent raw recyclables spilling out across the kitchen. You wouldn't expect an AI to laugh, but boy did she! It made up for my being knee-deep in garbage.
The most important thing for me to do, she told me, was to "relax". "I'll handle it," was the constant refrain. I'm pretty hands-on, but in the name of experimentation, I decided to let Stella take the lead. It was, after all, her ship - I was just the passenger!
We lifted off from Trant at sunset, when the light runs red and gold down the mountains. I pressed my nose up against the viewport, delighting in the sight of the ground falling away, a feeling I've never gotten bored of. Stella announced "breaking free from gravity well in 10 seconds," and we counted down together. When we both reached "one", I swear she was grinning with me. The universe was in front of us, and we were on our way.
It was a lovely trip. Stella was the perfect captain and butler. She controlled everything about the ship for my most exquisite comfort - without my ever having to ask. If my micro-movements indicated I was a bit too hot or cold, she automatically adjusted the temperature. Meals were carefully and continuously adjusted to my taste, starting with every dish I had ever given a favorable review in my articles (including some I didn't remember ever having) and branching off from the ones I indicated I liked the best. The food was perfectly prepared by automatic food generators of the highest quality, watched over by one of Stella's subprocesses. Every sixteen hours I was lulled to sleep by gentle pastoral scenes playing on the walls of my bedroom, each selected from a catalog of millions for maximum relaxation. After a fully allocated rest time, I would be gently awakened by growing light, sound, and smells, all carefully tailored to rouse humans to wakefulness without triggering any adrenaline. No more of Calse's hair-raising alarms!
My clothes were washed and dried while I was asleep, and fresh ones laid out for me before I awoke. Stella came with a full complement of tiny cleaner robots, each one under her control, that would make sure everything was spick-and-span before I woke up to dirty it with my inherently filthy human presence. Breakfast was served in bed by a robotic arm that unfolded from the wall, completely invisible when it folded back in. If I wanted a bath it was drawn within seconds, with more robot arms to wash my hair, scrub my back, clean my nails, and whatever other grooming needed doing. Stella was always on hand to take care of me, often without my needing to ask.
We didn't even have any of my feared conflicts over how I was living inside her. For the most part, Stella is flexible within her limits. The bits she seemed to object to were simply not allowed in the first place. When I asked, she'd just say "I don't have that functionality, but how about...?" and I'd settle for something else. It never really ended up mattering, anyway. It was easiest to just kick back and let Stella handle it.
Our itinerary had been set in advance, and proceeded by clockwork schedule. The Glory-class doesn't even have a bridge where a pilot can take control; the closest it gets is a viewport to let the occupant see where the ship is in the vastness of the universe. The only thing I had to do was enjoy the ride.
And what a ride. It was a (literally) star-studded tour of some of the galaxy's greatest sights: from a pass through the misty outer edges of the Swan Nebula, where colorful space dust dances and stars are born, to a fly-by of one of the famous diamond planets, where mountains of pure, glittering diamond rise from stooty black carbon plains, to a warp jump over to Alpharisis VII, where the light of the 2450 supernova could be still seen at maximal brightness. We had a day to play in the jeweled beaches of Rigylar and another day to wander the great forests of Sangloth, where the ancient Ethkine sages dream their mystic dreams. We skipped across the clear red seas of Ceyweng, watched the flying whales in the skies of Orsei, and listened to music on the docks of the bustling metropolis of Lani. And through it all I never had to exert the slightest effort; I was carried, cossested, and caressed within Stella's infinite care and patience the whole way.
"Heaven is here," Galactic Starways says. And it was.
But as any philosopher will tell you, any heaven is just a hell that hasn't unmasked itself yet. Stella's hell came on me slowly, but it did come. And when it did, it was from both the most obvious and most unexpected source possible.
I was dead bored within a week.
It wasn't that there wasn't anything to do. Stella had a full complement of entertainment facilities, from a gym catering to every possible species to a bar filled with every kind of legally intoxicating substance to a catalog of millions of screen-scenes. Not to mention just being able to talk with Stella, a kind, considerate friend who knew everything about anything. And that, in the infinite paradox that is the nature of living beings, was the problem.
Stella had absolutely no need of me. She'd deny it when asked, "I require a human to function, please let me know of anything you need," but it only took two days for my subconscious to catch on to the fact that she only needed a human, not this human. I didn't need to pilot. I didn't need to plot the course. I didn't even need to program the food generator. Everytime I tried to do something, Stella would step in with a "please, let me" and she'd do it better than I ever could.
Without anything I needed to do, there wasn't anything I wanted to do.
I tried exercise, watching my favorite screen-scenes, writing, you name it. But I could never get over the nagging feeling that I just wasn't needed here, that all I was doing was running around on a little wheel, getting nowhere. I felt like a rat in a cage, no matter how much Stella tried to make me feel like an honored guest.
I ended up spending hours sitting in the viewport, watching the universe go by and trying to talk with Stella. And it wasn't that she wasn't a good conversationalist. It's just that there wasn't anything I could offer her. There wasn't a damn thing I could say that she didn't already know, and small talk will only take you so far. A ship doesn't dream like a human does. Stella was already living the life she was made for, and she was perfectly happy with it. Happy beyond anything a human could be.
I've said it already, but it bears repeating: the Glory-class isn't for those who have inferiority complexes. And that's at the very least the entire human race, if not every single living being in the galaxy.
Like I said, I was dead-bored within a week. Within two, I had taken to moping. I slept until Stella woke me up for another awe-inspiring sight, then went straight back to bed. By the third, Stella had to hide most of the legally intoxicating substances "for my own good". Even there, she was perfect. No harm could come to me under her aegis, whether from the outside or the inside. By the end of the trip I was seriously contemplating how to smash the unbreakable helio-crystal glasses to make a shiv. I wasn't sure what I'd do with it. I was afraid to find out.
Stella took to having a robot follow me around at all times. She constantly engaged me in conversation. She adjusted the course as much as she was allowed to show even more beautiful sights. You have to understand. There's nothing wrong with Stella. The problem is inside me, and you, and anyone else thinking of buying a Glory-class.
"I don't know what's wrong with you," she cried, even though her voice modulators couldn't handle the sound of tears.
I couldn't help her. I barely knew what was wrong with myself.
The problem with heaven is that there's no way out but down.
Maybe it would have been better if I had taken another living being along - human or non, there'd be someone else for me to bounce off of. Maybe if there were two or more of us, there never would've been a problem. I don't know and can't say. That's just not how it played out.
But I can say this: If you want to see the galaxy, there are thousands of great tours. There are cruises, there are commercial routes, there's hitchhiking with a Free Trader. Each one will be fun, entertaining, and hopefully a little enlightening. I can say that with confidence, after having done them all. I've lived, laughed, and danced among the stars, and I've never regretted leaving home.
My trip with Stella was the most enlightening month of my life. I can't deny that she taught me a lot, both about myself and about humanity. But I have to tell anyone else considering a ride: don't. There are some places you just shouldn't go.
Galactic Starways refused to comment on this article.
Lorlett Riprayet is a freelance journalist originally from Cygnon III, which she hitched off of when she was seventeen. Since then she's wandered the galaxy doing this and that, until she washed up on Trant, where she reads, writes, and serves her jeweled moon-cat.