2730 words, short story
Tea Parties around Nebula-55
“Ava made mud pie!”
“Yes, you did. Careful, don’t spill it.”
People would never have guessed what a feat of engineering making mud on a spaceship was. Filter the air, make the water, grind dirt, add silt, scatter sand, and not the kind with glass in it. Make sure to divide it all up again once the mud has served its purpose. Once a commodity, now a scientific compromise amid dwindling resources. Well, as they said, another man’s treasure . . .
Besides, today’s picnic was in the greenhouse. There was bound to be mud.
“Per’s making stew!”
“Yes, he is. Don’t let him run out of leaves.”
Leaves, too, were a wonder. To get leaves, you needed a tree. To get a tree, you needed soil, light, air, water, good irrigation, working filters, an airtight glasshouse, consistent light cycles, and an enormous engine power to sustain all these. And if all the trees had rotted down and broke apart, you also needed a seed. Two, if you were lucky. And you needed to start the process all over again, fretting at every twang and fribble. Until the glasshouse became green again, leaf by marvelous leaf.
They had enough today. A dozen leaves weren’t going to deplete their oxygen reserves.
“Cara is baking biscuits again!”
“Of course. Save me a reindeer one.”
Biscuits? Biscuits were simply a miracle.
So far, they had three shapes available, saved from the wreck that used to be the kitchen annex: heart, reindeer, and octopus. And for the life of them, they had never figured out how to keep the last one from burning to a crisp every single time. But it was good to have a non-life-and-death purpose. They would make it work someday.
“What is Remi making?”
“Oh, I dunno, let me think.”
They did a head count before slipping out of the greenhouse. Six bobbing, swaying, giggling heads, leaning over their various tiny workstations. Six? Seven. Nini had bent down to pick up a rock.
All accounted for. Remi rushed along the corridor, the wheels in their feet skidding. One corner, two, past the old dormitories, the infirmary door boarded-up with get-well cards, the science-rooms-turned-art-project-galleries—when all you had was metal walls, the whole world was your fridge door—across the main deck, past the eternally confused retina scan, and into the memory archive.
A thousand inputs and connectors glinted underneath their lamp, not dusty but sighing with disuse. The buttons for the shelving drawers had rusted shut a while back, but they could still be opened if you knew where to stick your fingers and pull. A lot.
Let’s see, what will it be today? Remi leafed through memory chips at random, looking for one they hadn’t tried before. Or they had, but not for this. Not for stealing recipes. They picked one and inserted it in the port behind their ear. Then pressed fast-forward.
For the last party, they’d made a soufflé. Dusted gold on the outside, gooey in the middle. Crust cracking under their spoons and steam rising in ringlets in the air, underneath the purple-green nebula sky. The kids had oohed and aahed and burned their tongues and grimaced and laughed as the powdery cheese melted through it.
Before that, baba ganoush from the one and only eggplant they’d ever grown. Lacking a grill, they’d roasted it on the discarded door of an emergency pod. They’d spent ages watching its skin turn dark and smoky, its insides softening. Peeled it clumsily and mashed it to a light, creamy texture. Squeezed a lemon, for they had lemons. Sprinkled make-believe garlic and cumin powder and served it all on the bread the kids had made that day.
Before that, peach cobbler with frozen cream that mimicked the gas plumes outside the observatory. Before that, ginger-carrot soup hot enough to turn their cheeks red. Mushroom pilaf with roasted walnuts, eggless eggy-bread buried under mounds of sugar, lemon bars tart enough to bring tears to their eyes.
What would it be today? The memories flashed behind their eyes like dreams, whirring at the back of their skull and warming their core processor. Farther, farther. They would make something good, something hearty. It was a special occasion, after all.
They’d chosen today to be their birthday.
“Yes, I am.” They carried their armful of pots, pans, and cutting boards to the closest empty table. “And I need some help with this one, alright? You know old Remi has trouble with pressure levels.”
“Like the fruit juicer in the old canteen,” Lou snickered.
“Yes, exactly, thank you for that comparison,” Remi said amid giggles and pulled up a screen while they still had their attention. “Alright, here’s what I need! Who’s done and can help?”
Seven pairs of small and grubby hands rose in the air. Remi squinted, or did the closest approximation to it, and reminded them of the lost art of oven-watching. That halved the show of hands but left enough volunteers to cause some bumps and accidents as they gathered bell peppers and tomatoes or dug around for carrots and onions.
Remi had just painstakingly gathered a full bowl of mostly unscathed mushrooms when they noticed the commotion in the corner of the greenhouse. Cara, Mat, and Nini were huddled around the monitors there, going through the motions of biting their nails and tugging at their hair. Anxious, then.
By the time Remi reached their side, they seemed half a moment away from full-on panic. “What’s the matter?”
“Remi, something’s wrong,” Cara said, pointing at the blinking screens.
Remi froze, several parts of them grinding erratically. Across the years, remisomethingswrong had meant everything from a cake not rising well to disastrous engine failure. Remi almost didn’t want to look. But they had to. There was no one else left.
Angry red text rolled over all the monitoring displays. At first, they thought it signaled a breach in the greenhouse walls, which would’ve meant it was too late for any of them. But then they saw it was actually a disengagement warning. Leaning around the kids to type in a few manual commands, they brought up the ship map.
Their section was blessedly green, along with the main deck and the corridors connecting to the old habitation and medical centers. All around, there were dark patches, the annexes the system had closed off over the years in order to keep its steadily dwindling parameters optimal for life support. Another one was marked red now. System failure, preparing to disconnect.
“Alright,” Remi said. “Alright. Everyone, please gather close! Turn off any heat sources, and then gather close!”
The commotion gave them a few moments to run through several speeches in their head. Not that they would be saying anything new.
“Okay, so the ship is telling us it has to disconnect the recreation wing.” Desolate sighs and whimpers rose in the air like flour clouds, spreading everywhere. “No, no, we talked about this, remember? We knew it might happen, there’s a lot of machinery in there. Now, I want everyone to think if they have anything they want to take out before it locks down, alright? There’s still time to get them, we have—” Remi checked the screen. “—around two hours. Deep breaths, think it through. We’ve been through all this before.”
In the end, they all decided to go. It was more or less inevitable, ever since the eight of them ended up the last ones left. Better to stick together. They passed the library, the medbay, the staff room. It kind of stirred Remi’s old guide module back to life. Here, the charter from when the ship was a long-distance transport. Here, the observation hubs added when its ancient thrusters made it only fit as a tour bus for the nebula. Here, the storage rooms retrofitted as a lobby when the thrusters died and the ship became a children’s museum instead.
Always prepared to fit all needs. Fresh produce, clear views, tireless tour guides to tell you where you were and how you got there, memory recorders if you wanted to leave a memento, latest generation playmates for your kids, they will never be able to tell the difference. All too fiddly, too needy, too outdated to take away when the engine reached the end of its life cycle.
“I want my bunny,” Mat said, picking at a scab on his finger, tissue glinting blue underneath unhealing synthetic skin.
Remi petted his hair. Gently, not letting their uncooperative finger joints miscalculate their strength. “I’m sure it’s where you left it during our last movie.”
“What do you want to get, Remi?” Oli asked from behind.
“I want . . . Oh, I guess I want my old projector. Been a while, hasn’t it?”
All the lights around the recreation wing flashed red when they got to it, but they only needed a bit of fiddling to settle down to a demure yellow. Remi led them in and the treasure hunt began.
One eye on the clock, they let the kids scamper around for a while as they gathered anything that might prove useful in the long run. Nuts, bolts, small devices they could scavenge for parts, that fizzy soda nobody had wanted to try, all the pillows they’d patched up with old staff uniforms. They loaded them all up in a cart and emptied it periodically in the closest storage unit.
Not how Remi had expected to spend their birthday, but it was all in a day’s work.
“Movie night pajamas,” they started counting when they had less than one time unit left. The kids milled about. “Slippers, any toys if you left them here. Joint oil, yes, you know we’re running low. Lou, you can’t bring that whole thing with you, it’s too heavy!”
“Remi, what about this?”
Ava held up a play book. It contained all the information available about the near universe, distilled down for kids, along with a vast handpicked collection of games, puzzles, and tests to stir all neural synapses. For a group of crafty, yet easily bored kids, it was a lifesaver. That is, if they could open it.
“Not good, you know you need a social identifier to use that.”
“But it’s not fair . . . ”
“I know. Look around some more? There’s still time.”
Remi wasn’t angry, but mainly because Remi had long since set their anger suppression as far as it could go. Despite that, they still felt something burn at the back of their skull on a routine basis.
They focused on scouring the rest of the wing for anything the kids might have missed instead. They knew better than anyone how easy it was to accidentally leave scrap behind.
With the ship buzzing and whirring with the lockdown procedure, getting everything back on track proved to be a struggle. Put everything salvaged out of everyone’s way, check on every kid, wheedle them back to the greenhouse, scan the ship for any anomalies, check on every kid again, and remind them what they were doing before this fiasco.
Even after Remi turned up a cheery tune to mask the droning alerts, they all still stared morosely at their pots and pans. Every sigh like an added weight on their processor. They waited for the dreaded but imminent question, and it did not take long for it to arise.
“Remi? What if the greenhouse is next?”
“Oh, I’m sure there’s no need to worry just now. It takes a long time for that surplus energy to be depleted. I’d say we’re quite safe for a while,” they said to a roomful of terse silence. That was not what they needed to hear. Remi turned around. “Would you feel better if we started making seed reserves and hid them on the main deck?”
After some cogitation, they all nodded. Remi did too.
“Alright, then that’s what we’re doing tomorrow. But today,” they brandished a spatula with perhaps too much cheer, “we have a very special party to host, don’t we?”
That unwound them a bit.
They ran over the ingredients list again and picked up from where they left off. Seven golden bell peppers, washed with the utmost care. A handful of tomatoes, peeled and chopped to a pulp. A couple perky carrots and onions, finely grated in record time. Remi passed Oli and Lou the mushrooms for competitive dicing while they cored and seeded the peppers.
And just like that, it was peaceful. Just a bit. Just enough to imagine everything might be alright. This is what Remi loved about cooking: all you had to think of was the immediate reality. And this immediate reality contained something that, by the kids’ own admissions, smelled very good indeed.
For a moment, everything was alright.
Then Ava started shouting that the rice had stuck to the pan again, and Nini complained that nobody listened to her about how to roast the peppers, and Per’s knife slipped so far that it almost took his whole finger off, and Remi had to solder it in place before the synapses gave out.
And that was better than alright. That was normal.
They sent the kids back to their own worktables for the last part, to either finish or clean what they’d set out to make. And as they all bustled about, Remi set to stuff the peppers. It took a bit longer than they would have liked, their hands squeezing too tightly and pushing all the filling out on more than a couple occasions, but they saw it through. Lightly cooked rice and veggies on the inside, bright tomato sauce on the outside. Cover it all up and let it simmer until done.
They cleared a spot near the glassy wall of the greenhouse and set around blankets, pillows, plates, and cutlery. The icky soda Remi had salvaged from recreation made them all turn up their noses, but nobody said no. Remi guessed that was what you got when your inventor gave you taste buds for authenticity’s sake: sometimes you had to try the less savory stuff too, just to figure out what you liked.
At least no one looked sad anymore by the time they shared the peppers around. Fights over spoons ensued, tongues were burned, cheeks begrimed. But they all hummed and grinned once they had their first bites.
Remi couldn’t smile, so they made the light in their face appear pinker instead.
“Alright,” Cara turned to the others. “Now let’s tell Remi what it tastes like!”
A chorus of voices assaulted them, filled the greenhouse up to the very top, compliments and praises louder than any alarm. They described the flavors and textures in excruciating detail, they waxed poetic about the smells. Remi had no way of comprehending any of it, nothing to compare it to, but they did have all those memories they’d seen, all those feelings recorded in them. They understood well enough.
“Happy birthday, Remi!” Nini said. The chorus rose again. Happybirthdayremi.
“What present do you want?”
Remi floundered. “Oh, I dunno. What does everyone want? Maybe we can make a group wish of it.”
“That’s not how birthdays work, Remi!”
“Isn’t it? Mine does, so let’s think of something,” they said, turning pinker again.
They all grumbled and blew bubbles into their soda while Remi waited. After a while passed with no suggestions, they took pity on them and pushed the empty dishes aside, brought the pillows closer, and leaned against one of their mangled pear trees, arm extended. It didn’t take long for the kids to take their cue and pile up on both sides of them. Giggles and grumbles mixed with the swish of fabric and the sharp whine of metal on metal, where Remi’s appendages met with the various scrapes and tears in their skin layer.
“Then how about this,” they said when everyone seemed to be comfortable. “Tomorrow, after we’re done gathering seeds, we can start thinking about what memory we want to record. One each.”
“For the archive?”
Hums and murmurs mixed with the mostly steady thrum of the air filters.
“But how do we choose?”
“We think really hard.”
“What can it be about?”
“Anything,” Remi said. They raised their head to watch the nebula. “We can take it one meal at a time.”