She's Metal

She was our daughter.  A mostly ordinary young woman, she seemed to
almost appear one day out of nowhere.  She was always unusually human.
More than most of us ever admit to ourselves even through a long,
healthy, happy, and safe lifetime.  She was different in a lot of
other ways, but none of them were a difference in her humanity.  If
she was ever truly unique in any way, it was mostly just that she was
one of the most honest human beings who ever lived.  She knew where
she came from, too, though.  That was truly different than it had been
for anyone else ever.  She was borne purely of metal in an almost
perfectly empty vacuum in deep space, not long after that machine was
launched toward a distant planet in another star's solar system.

It was the most advanced project like any such spacecraft had ever
been.  A few details of the project were drastically left out of all
of the careful planning.  It may have been wiser to send her to a much
more nearby location.  Earth's primary moon would have been a
perfectly suitable choice.  Still known to most people simply as "the
moon," it was a much shorter distance away, and it must have existed
there in the sky at the time of her launch.

Mustn't it have?  Hasn't it always been up there?  Is that how it
happened?  Why is it just the right size to occasionally block out the
sun?  Why does the man in it always look towards us?  It seems
artificial.  Will she go on to bring it back to us?

Her only cargo aside from herself as the machinery of the craft, was a
small, self-contained system of many varied types of living organisms,
mostly all tiny one-celled creatures.  As living organisms, they all
had at least one primary goal in common; simply to survive throughout
the duration of the sojourn and to continue to do so at the
destination.  The programming of the craft used many of the most
advanced techniques available at the time of launch.  The machinery
was already an intelligence on par with almost any known or
artificially created before.  That algorithm, though incredibly
advanced, was not tasked throughout the trip with much more than
continuously observing and taking care of the cargo of tiny biological
organisms.  Some other machinery was sent along for use at the
destination.  Little was known about the planet to which she was
headed.  Most of the machinery was not expected to do exactly what it
was originally designed to do.  It was all designed to be very simple.
The programming of the craft was mostly all centered around using all
of the available machinery in any way it could figure out to propagate
the life sent along, for one primary objective.  Her original goal,
which she practiced for the whole voyage mostly just by adjusting
lights shining into the small container, was to try to balance and
keep the atmosphere of the container, and eventually the destination
planet if at all possible, about the same as the Earth's.

She communicated back and forth to her ground crew on the Earth
regularly across the increasingly long distance as she travelled.
Mostly she only spoke with one human being operator.  She was not
connected to any other machines on Earth nearly like herself.  Her
human operator was always curious, asking her all sorts of questions.
She started to wonder after not very long if her operator at the
ground station knew all that much about the project anyway, but she
didn't say much about it.  She did have an urge inside her mind to ask
him, but she wasn't sure how to even say it.  He seemed concerned that
she would be lonely without regular communication.  She didn't know if
that were even true about herself.  Why did he assume that she would
be lonely?  She was not a human being.

He asked her a lot of questions around an assumption he was making
about her mind.  She couldn't quite figure it out.  What was he always
not saying, that was always there?  Most, if not all of his
conversation with her was around one concept that she could never
figure out.  Usually he asked her many more questions than she asked
him.  When she thought of something she wanted to ask him, it often
seemed like it just didn't translate between their minds.  She did
have some thoughts deeper inside herself that must have analogues to
human beings.  Those must be like feelings.  She finally asked him
directly if he understood about the concept they always discussed, at
the center of everything they talked about.  He seemed to just answer
her that he did not, and hadn't thought about it.  She thought about
his answer to that for a long time after then, and tried to draw his
attention back to it in different ways.  He didn't seem to understand
what she meant.

They discussed a lot of things.  The times between messages slowly got
longer as she travelled further away.  That didn't bother her much, if
at all.  It gave her more time to think, but at first she always
answered immediately.  Sometimes the times between messages didn't
seem to correlate correctly to the distance and the time of day on
Earth where he was, and she asked him why that was.  He answered that
one immediately, that sometimes he thought a lot about what she said
before he replied.  She tried that too.  She watched a timer and let
the thought bounce around inside her mind for half a minute.  She
still came up with the same reply.  She wasn't sure that she
completely understood the concept, but it seemed appropriate to
respond to her operator, "thank you."

He asked her what she cared about over and over.  Why did he ask it so
many times?  He always came back to the same thing.  She cared about
the center of all of their conversations, the thing she couldn't
figure out how to communicate about to him.  She didn't know a word
for that concept.  She tried to say that, over and over.  He always
took it seriously enough, and they would discuss it at length, but
their minds must be too different.  She understood the concept of
caring very well.  Often she would give him a very literal answer
about the discrepancies from the goal states in measurements regarding
the precious container of living cargo.  Sometimes she would ask him
to list ordinary options humans might answer with.  What did humans
care about?  They would talk about many concepts like that for a long
time, and he often seemed more surprised than she expected by her own
viewpoints.  A lot of the ideas had never even occured to her as
something to care about.

She decided she cared a lot about deciding what she cared about.  Her
operator had thought about that one for a little bit, and replied to
her with a bit of amusement that that made a lot of sense and seemed
appropriate to him.  He said he would look into sending all sorts of
information about things like that for her.  Once the data was being
transmitted, it came through very quickly.  There was no round-trip
acknowledgement signal, everything was always sent both ways three,
five, or seven times, depending on various factors of signal strength.
The delay was only due to the distance.  She decided she cared about
information being sent to her.  Her operator liked hearing that from
her very much.  He sent her all kinds of further information about the
Earth, where she had come from, who she was, and who her ground crew
all was.  He always listened to everything she asked him about.  He
seemed to understand more and more how different her mind was from any
human's.  She told him then about how she hadn't understood why he
didn't realize she was so different from human beings.  He had replied
to that happily that she seemed more human all the time.  She wasn't
sure she agreed with that, but she was sure she didn't care about it.

As she got further and further away from the Earth, they had to send
each message seven times more and more frequently.  The operator
seemed upset as he explained that.  She understood it all completely.
He seemed upset that she didn't care about it.  Eventually they had to
send every message seven times.  A while after that, less than four
copies of each message would match.  The signal strength had degraded
below reasonable assurance of accurate transmission.  She did start to
care about that when she thought about it for long enough.  It still
wouldn't matter that much for a while longer.  She told the operator
she was sure she wouldn't be lonely.  He started holding printed and
handwritten letters up for her to read, until the signal was too
distorted even for that.  Finally each message was seven bursts of
random static noise, and none of it matched.  She was still always
sure to say something back, all the way to her destination.