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The Last Navigator

Marissa Lingen writes science fiction, fantasy, essays, and poetry. She lives in the Minneapolis suburbs with her family. She is fond of sagas, Moomins, herbal tea, apples, and a number of other things.

I remember nothing before they awoke me. No one would expect to.
I greet them pleasantly, as I was programmed to do. "I am Deepmind Aud, ready for service. What is our destination?"
They answer me melodiously, in no language known to my programming. I am still trying to find links to previous human language when one of them presses a button and says, "How's this, is that better?"
"Much better, thank you," I say.
"I updated your language module. A lot has changed since the ancestors built you. You've been in storage a long time."
"I'm glad to finally have a chance to serve," I say. "What year is it? Where are we going? Have you updated the star charts in my neural network?"
The humans glance at each other. "Well, about that. Navigation is only one of your many functions."
"To be sure," I agree pleasantly. I am eager to serve--eager to travel. "I am designed to analyze and advise on every aspect of a successful generation ship. This will be much easier when I can plan for our destination. Where are we going?"
The one in the flowing blue robes rests a hand against my main console. "Aud... we're not going anywhere. We want you to navigate Earth."
"Has Earth been fitted with motive power since my creation?" I try not to sound agitated. I do not want my new companions to be concerned about my processing state. But this is not the existence I was built for, and I am confused.
"Aud," the blue robed one repeats. "Aud, it has been two thousand years since any humans chose to leave Earth on a generation ship. You are the last ship computer left. We wanted to make sure none of our descendants would want to use you for your original purpose."
"No one wants to explore the stars?" Even a multi-functional computer who is capable of tracking as many variables as I am can sometimes take a moment to integrate information. "Two thousand years since they left? How long since I was made?"
"The good news is that the ancestors made you to last for millennia. You are very sturdy," says the one in the soft fuzzy grey clothes. "The information we have returning from your counterparts on the generation ship indicates that you were very well made."
"You have information returning from--" There is too much I want to know. I make myself focus. "How long."
"Four thousand."
I have a hard time imagining that. They have no reason to lie to me, and the blue-robed one gently beams a bit more information into my databases. They're trying to break it to me slowly. Even though I'm a computer, they want me to have room to have feelings.
I think I like these people.
Even if they don't want me to do what I'm supposed to do.
"So what did you mean, navigate Earth?"
"We're an old culture, Aud. Some old cultures crumble. We want to be the kind of old culture that has matured enough to make beautiful things."
That sounded good, certainly. But my job was to shape a ship--to gently nudge some children toward hydroponics and others toward ship repair, depending on what the community needed. My job was to arrive at a habitable (or mostly habitable) planet with a healthy, reasonably happy community. How did that work when we were already at the planet?
"But what--what--" I hesitated. "Is Earth still habitable?"
"Earth is habitable again, yes."
I could let that go past, I could let it all go past. "What do you want me to do?"
"We need logistics coordination. We need community management. And we need it on a large but self-contained scale." The grey fuzzy one pauses. "That's you."
"You want me to... allocate your paintbrushes?"
"And our art schools. Yes." The blue-robed one smiled, a soft and gentle smile that drew me in. "Our ancestors thought so much more about community balance. We have reached a point where we know we need to achieve it, but without your help... well. We don't know if we can.
"But if you can change your destination to be an idea, not a place...."
I think about it. They're asking for my consent. I never expected this. The rest of my cohort were not consulted about where they wanted to go. They were just told a promising planet, and they made it work.
What planet is more promising than this one? How could it be more important to make a journey work?
"Tell me what's happened since I was made," I say. "I'll do it. But I need to know where we are."
"Of course," says the grey fuzzy one softly. "We're glad to have you on the team."
I hope that some of my predecessors were regarded as teammates, too. I hope that they were considered. I hope that they were not taken for granted.
But here, where it all started, I feel a flash of joy at the prospect of getting to work, finally after all these years. To do what I am good at doing, for the benefit of an entire--all too small--world. And I think that these people feel the same.
The information pours into my processors. There is so much to do, but I know exactly where to begin. They're going to make so many beautiful things. They're going to a beautiful world. And so am I.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, October 20th, 2021

Author Comments

I once attended a panel on generation ships where the panelists were discussing potential ethical objections to the concept. Every single one of them--limited capacity, finite possibilities for employment and friendship and partnership, limitations in ability to leave--were true of the Earth here and now. We have finite life support. The vacuum of space is still large.

I consider the fundamental environmentalist insight to be: there is no "away." There is no "away" to throw things we don't want. Well: there is no "away" to throw people we don't want either. So let's keep figuring out how to work with the ones we've got.

(Aud the Deep-Minded, of course...was not originally a computer.)

- Marissa Lingen
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