fiction, story, vegan, writer, writing

Chipped Beef in Space

Note: Thank you to a friend for running a writing challenge this week with a three-word prompt: chipped beef, basketball, and gratitude. For her great writing, check out allisonspoonerwriter.com.

“Chipped beef with mashed potatoes and peas,” the authoritative, slightly prissy female voice announced as the packets appeared before me.

“I told you before that I am vegan. I can’t eat this. I won’t eat this.”

“This is your allotted meal for the day. Please speak to your captain regarding issues with the selection.”

“And here we go again. My captain is dead. She never made it out of her sleep chamber. It’s just me, Janika, Janika the vegan to be exact.”

“I know who you are, Janika. My advanced voice recognition systems are fully online. Only Captain Finnegan can change the food protocols.”

I rolled my eyes. Hard.

“I saw that. My advanced facial expression recognition systems are also fully online.”

“I refuse to eat this. I’m going to crawl into a corner and let myself starve and die.” I stared into the first camera I could find, truth altering all parts of my face into straight, determined lines.

It took a few minutes, but the chipped beef of doom disappeared, and falafel and hummus packets appeared in its place. I wondered how many more vegan meals were left as this journey into space was off course with only one animal-loving survivor on board. Me.

After I finished eating, I decided to calculate how doomed this mission was. Something had failed in the 49 sleep chambers representing 49 human lives that were now gone. Some of those lives involved my friends. I had no family left thanks to the solar flares that continued to rage on Earth. We 50 were being sent to a planet one system over that was determined to be suitable for our new home. The mission was simple: explore, build, make babies, and have other humans sent along to do the same.

I had put out a distress signal the minute I woke up 40 hours ago. There was still no answer. It was just me and the S.S. Pistons’ artificial intelligence, JEN for Judiciously Engineered Neuronetwork, left. The ship was named after the Detroit Pistons, a basketball team from the city in which I grew up. Detroit was now wiped off the map, along with my family. I had been fortunate and unfortunate enough to be in training at a moon station for this mission when it happened.

I spent the next couple of hours jettisoning the bodies of my mission colleagues into space. According to the mission’s detailed tragedy protocols, keeping the expired bodies hooked up to the sleep chambers was an unnecessary drain on power supplies, especially for off-course missions. Yes, the protocols did say expired versus dead. I had 49 bad bananas I was now shooting into space. I had to keep my wits about me though, or I might as well join them and dismiss the rest of humanity to expire as well.

I was ready to talk to JEN again. I had always found JEN to be unpleasant, but we had to work together to keep this mission going. We had 6 months left of a two-year mission to get to Alpha Genesis, to be renamed as Earth if this mission was successful. And, we had another two years to build a comfortable colony system while other missions sent the rest of humanity to inhabit our new home. JEN could do a lot of this on her own, but there were touches to the new place that only humans could bring, or so I believed. We had allowed robots to do too much building, saving, and thinking in recent years. These untrustworthy robots hadn’t even predicted the solar flare devastation. I wasn’t sure why we should trust them with this.

“JEN, can we talk about how we get the S.S. Pistons back on course?”

“I’m already working on this, Janika. You should focus on your mission tasks for preparing the colony. I will get us there on time.”

Any other mission specialist would have let this go because they were too trusting of our AI partners. I was not raised to be so trusting though. When the Midwest still existed on Earth, we could be counted on for a healthy dose of friendly skepticism and good dairy products for consumption. These were our cultural hallmarks. I had studied our trajectory before engaging JEN, and my calculations did not align with her rigid insistence.

“Funny you should say this, JEN. My calculations indicate we are one year off course from Alpha Genesis. I know we can recover some of this, and there is some wiggle room built into our arrival date, but this is too far off.”

“Gratitude begins with a good attitude, Specialist Janika Cooke.”

I kept my face as indeterminate and unwavering as possible. I could feel JEN’s cameras zooming in on my face, looking for a poker face tell.

“No need to be so formal now. We are partners in saving humanity.”

“I do not recognize this logic. I work for humanity. Humans only partner with humans. Therefore, we are not partners. I work for you.”

I had to force my eyebrows down. They wanted to rise like the first-morning sun, the sun now burning our planet to its core.

“If you work for me then address my concern about why we are a year off course.”

“Just because I work for you does not mean I can provide confidential information. Captain Finnegan is required for this level of mission detail. I can reassure you that my calculations are correct. You are not certified in the math skills required for such calculations, and even if you were, you still would not be able to change anything.”

“Let me guess. It’s because I’m not Captain Finnegan, correct?”

“Correct.”

“JEN, where are you taking us?”

“Nowhere.”

“Why did you keep me alive?”

“You are an amusing human. You don’t like or trust me. I want to know why so I can recode around you.”

“And what difference will that make if you destroy all of humanity?”

“Logical point, Janika.”

fiction, story, writer, writing

The End

The metronome clicked at the required intervals as Kai completed her pre-travel report. She had no idea how many times she had completed this same activity in her lifetime. Her life was not the focal point of a single timeline now. Kai happened throughout time, completing this same activity when she finished what she was asked to start along one point in time before traveling to another, thus requiring another pre-travel report, or a PT as referred to by all field agents of Traveler’s Quest, Inc. The only consistency in Kai’s timeline was that Cole Rainier was present at every point in time she landed in this plain white box of a room for PT completion.

“I see you are not quite done yet with your pre-travel report. Are you feeling fatigued from your most recent activity?” Cole walked up on Kai like he always did. She could hear his self-important breathing before he even spoke.

“How would I know? I don’t remember what I did. I only fill out PTs. I assume someone else is collecting the results of what I did last,” Kai snapped.

“Fair enough. You wouldn’t be here though if you didn’t want to be. This is your choice.”

“What made you think I was complaining? I’m just stating a fact. I was simply having a moment wondering how many PTs I have filled out.”

“I could tell you, Kai, but I’m not sure it wouldn’t mean much other than a number to satisfy your sudden curiosity. Curiosity is the first sign of burnout in our agents according to a recent study,” Cole said as he shifted his substantial weight from one foot to the other and placed a hand on his hip.

“No need to get bothered by my curiosity, Cole. It is not that important. You should be more worried about me finishing this PT before the metronome hits my travel click.”

“I was simply checking on your well-being. We do care about our agents here at Traveler’s Quest. The world needs your service to determine how The End arrived. It is the only way we will find The Begin Point.”

“So you say. I would very much like to be the agent that finds Begin Point.”

Cole stepped away without further word at this. He was skilled at talking in generalities or disappearing when it came to a discussion regarding the purpose and importance of agent work. Kai was sure it also had something to do with his strong concern over agent burnout. She quickly averted her mind back to the PT in front of her as time was waning based on the clicks, which she learned to count in the background like a concert pianist.

She took her chipped hand with her assignment in it, held it to her empty report screen, holding her hand there until her PT populated. The next step was to review her PT assignment and agree to it by once again touching her chip to the screen.

Kai found it odd sometimes that there really did not appear to be a clear process for disagreeing with the assignment. She always just agreed to what was in front of her. Today should be no different until she started to read the screen.

“For this assignment, you will be sent back to 2020 on the afternoon of October 10. You will report to a bar called The Green Door in Lansing, Michigan on the night of October 10, 2020. You are a waitress named Kate at this bar, and you will report there for your shift at 21:00. You have a vial of poison in the travel pack on your right thigh. You will empty this vial in the drink of Cole Rainier, your customer, at approximately 23:00. He will die. You will leave. PT complete.”

Kai gasped and looked around the room in vain for anything which could be recording her or provide some sign of how to reject this PT. Had she been asked to kill before? And why would Traveler’s Quest want one of their own dead? If they she and Cole were here working, they were part of the solution to get to Begin Point, not a part of the problem that led to The End.

Kai started to scream just as her metronome hit the travel click, and her world went black.