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?”
“JEN, where are you taking us?”
“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.”