Courtship FTL

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, November/December 2020

“These are high-quality, classy, very smart ships. They don’t want captains who are going to be useless freeloaders.”

Addie stepped onto the fanciest spaceship she’d ever seen and thrilled at the idea that she might soon own it.  The twinkling lights, the shining displays, the dashboards of brightly colored buttons — all hers!  She’d been saving credits for years and finally had enough to buy a fully AI-equipped, FTL-drive starhopper.

Everything about this ship was perfect — the aquamarine and chrome detail work; the oversized cargo bay; the extra bunkroom for taking on passengers; and oblong windows everywhere.  If you’re gonna be in space, you should be able to see the stars.

But when Addie stepped onto the bridge, something went wrong:  all the twinkling lights and shining display screens shut down.  She tried to climb into the pilot’s seat to see if she could get them running again, maybe take this baby for a test drive, but the throne-like pilot’s seat turned away from her as she approached it.  She stepped around the chair, trying to get to its front, but it kept turning, and she kept following, until she felt like a foolish puppy chasing its tail.

And she could have sworn the ship itself agreed, because she thought she heard someone — or something — chuckling at her.

Addie deboarded the starhopper and sought out one of the sales aliens, waddling around, looking kind of like a giant penguin.

“Hey, hi, I wanted to take that ship for a test drive–”  She pointed back at the airlock of the chrome and aquamarine vision.  “–but something’s wrong inside.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the penguin-alien chuffled.  “I guess that one doesn’t like you.  You should try another.”

“Doesn’t like me?” Addie asked at a loss.

“Yes, that’s right.  I’m sorry.  But you can try another!  The Seabreeze Sinewave is still a very new starhopper, just arrived at our sales floor and quite choosy.  Some of the others have been here longer and are more likely to actually settle down, pick a captain, and start their lives flying through space.”

“I’m sorry.  I don’t understand.  If I’m buying the ship–”

The penguin cut Addie off with a sudden guffaw.  “Buying the ship!  Goodness, you can’t buy a sentient ship.”

Addie frowned, confused.  “If I’m not buying the ship, then why do they all cost so much?”

“Ah, I see the confusion.”  The penguin folded her flipper-hands in front of her.  “You’re not buying the ship; you’re buying a share in the ship’s independent business.  These are high-quality, classy, very smart ships.  They don’t want captains who are going to be useless freeloaders.”

Addie blinked.

After a moment the penguin said, “If a ship does pick you, you’re in for a real treat — their sentient AIs make the best co-pilots, and they become very attached to their bio-crew members.  An AI-powered ship that truly cares about you is the best friend you could ever have.  Of course, if you’re uncomfortable with that, you’re welcome to–”

The penguin was clearly about to send Addie packing towards the discount clunker lot on the other side of the space station.

“No, no, that’s okay.”  Addie pressed her lips together in a fine line.  “Just a readjustment.”  She needed to think of this process less like ship-shopping and more like some sort of bizarre intergalactic speed-dating.

And so, Addie took a deep breath, picked another airlock, and walked into another ship.  This time, she was keenly aware that while she was judging the ship, the ship was judging her.  Addie did her best to be polite, introducing herself as she came onboard, asking permission before touching any of the gleaming gold control panels, and complimenting the ship on all its brightly colored buttons.  But she couldn’t help noticing, they weren’t quite as brightly colored as the ones aboard the Seabreeze Sinewave.

Addie did her best to make a good impression on every ship she visited from then on, but she felt uncomfortable with all of them.  Like she was trying too hard, and none of them fit her quite right.  She’d toured the Seabreeze Sinewave first, because based on its specs, it was the ship she really wanted.

Steeling herself, Addie approached the Seabreeze Sinewave’s airlock again.  When the ship’s external cameras saw her, the outer hatch spiraled shut.  Addie nodded.  “I deserve that,” she said.  “I treated you like an object before.  I’m sorry.  I guess… I didn’t understand what AI-powered really meant.  Can we start again?”

The airlock hatch stayed firmly shut.

“Will you at least… talk to me?”  Addie shifted her weight from one foot to the other.  “You can make me chase your pilot’s chair in circles again if you want.”

Silence from the Seabreeze Sinewave.  But Addie had nothing to lose, so she spun around in front of the airlock, throwing her arms out wide, “I’ll even spin around for no reason!”

Maybe she imagined it, but Addie thought she heard the same chuckle as earlier come from somewhere.

“I have no shame,” she said, still spinning.  “I’ll spin until I fall down dizzy.”  The airlock hatch spiraled open, and Addie stopped spinning, big grin on her face.  “You like that, huh?”

Lights in the airlock twinkled invitingly, and Addie took a step forward.  For an instant, the hatch started spiraling shut, but when Addie hesitated, the iris opened all the way again.  “Hah, you got me.  But you’re not going to mess about with airlock doors when it’s dangerous, right?”

Right,” the Seabreeze Sinewave agreed with a melodically synthesized voice.

“You speak!”

“And you are a fool.”

“Maybe,” Addie agreed.  “But if you give me a chance, I’d like to be your fool.  Think we could try that test drive now?”

The lights in the airlock pulsed through several shades of green before the Seabreeze Sinewave spoke again:  “I guess I could give you a whirl.  See how well you handle.  That is, if you can catch the pilot’s seat.”

“You’re on.”  Addie had a plan — this time she was going to climb right over the back of the chair, treating it like a mechanical bull if the ship wouldn’t stop it spinning.

Addie didn’t mind playing the fool to someone who deserved it.  And she liked the idea of a spaceship with a sense of humor.

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