“Why on Earth would I want to eat this disgusting slop again?”
Commander Bennett punctuated the question by slamming the frozen meal tray down onto the flight deck, just narrowly missing a bank of important input screens. He settled into the worn co-pilot chair and crossed his arms in a dramatic, low-blood-sugar kind of way.
Commander Holt, of course, had heard it all before. “I suppose that’s the point, isn’t it?” He said. “We’re not on Earth.”
“Really? That’s so weird, I hadn’t noticed,” Bennett said, glaring. He threw his booted feet up onto the deck now, kicking his would-be dinner across the array of everything crucial keeping their long-range hauler up and running.
He then raised his voice, as if shouting to someone in the next room over: “Hey, Pax? PAX!”
After a moment, a third voice filtered in over the forward cabin. It emanated from both everywhere and, it seemed, nowhere. Its cool, feminine tone was altogether formal, but also clearly meant to be friendly. Had either member of the ship’s two-person crew not known better, they might have easily assumed she was simply another hand responding to a comm request from a different part of the ship.
“Yes, Commander,” the ship’s A.I. said easily. “I trust you’ve had a pleasant evening.”
“Yeah, whatever, just listen,” Bennett said. “Where the hell are we anyway?”
Holt didn’t look up from the data pad that had occupied most of his attention for the first several hours of his command shift. “Not close,” he said. “Leave her alone. And get your feet off the deck.”
“I’m talking to my girl Pax, Commander. I’ll get back to you in a second.”
Bennett pulled his legs down to the floor and rotated his chair 180 degrees to face the rest of the cabin. “You can go ahead and answer me now, honey.”
“I issued a regularly-scheduled update to Commander Holt on ship’s location at the start of his shift not more than two hours ago,” Pax said. “I don’t see much use in an another.”
“Don’t be a smart ass. I gave you a command. Follow it.”
She did. “We are, as Commander Holt said, not close. Approximately 22.468722 billion kilometers from our scheduled rendezvous with Crystal Station above Cinnas. Point-four-six-eight-seven-two-one. Point-four-six-eight-seven-two. Point-four-six-eight-seven-one-nine.”
Pax paused a second or two before adding: “Shall I continue?”
“Oh, please do,” Bennett answered with a half-cocked grin. “Till all your synapses burn out.” He spun back to Holt, carelessly sweeping his hand across all manner of control implements along the command deck. “Remind me to contact the Systems Administrator when we reach C.S. so I can finally get her ripped out of here and replaced with something a little more helpful.”
He again threw his chin to the air with eyes darting about the cabin’s upper reaches, as if trying to speak with an unseen god. “You read me, Pax? Make a reminder in my personal log to have you replaced once we get to the station. Assuming we ever get there.”
“Affirmative, Commander, I read you.”
Holt was at long last stirred to put down the pad. His eyes felt strained and he squinted hard at the thought of another pointless argument with his insufferable co-commander.
“Jesus, just leave her alone,” he said. “She’s only doing her job.”
“So am I,” the other man countered. “But I guess it’s a little easier for her, isn’t it? She doesn’t need to eat. How can I be expected to carry out ship’s duties when I’m literally shaking from starvation?”
Holt wasn’t sure if he should get upset or laugh. He eyed the meal tray still sitting in the middle of the flight deck as he spoke. He’d finished his lunch ration not long ago.
“First, I’ve seen your physio reports; you’re not starving. And second, we’ve got perfectly good rations right here. I even kinda like the, er…” He craned his neck forward to get a better look at description printed across the package’s pull-away lid. “… Salisbury steak. It’s not bad. Better than the lasagna, anyway.”
“You’re joking, right?” Bennett scoffed. “That triple-processed, re-hydrogenated imitation crap isn’t steak. It’s barely even food.”
The sound of Pax’s voice reappeared, this time with a distinct tone of authority. “According to Galcomm Statue 80.45, ship’s rations meet or exceed every nutritional requirement for a well-balanced meal. And they rate highly with culinary testers, as well as with Commander Holt.”
“Why would you cite nutritional regulation at me?” Bennett said, his face contorted. “Why would you do that? Do you think I don’t know what the clowns back at Galcomm try to sell us on?”
He shook his head and leveled a pointed finger at Holt.
“You’re the reason she’s like this, you know,” he said. “Because of what you’ve done to her. You two spend all your off-duty hours together watching those movies from the stone age and writing that godawful poetry.”
“You do know Pax can be everywhere on the ship at once, right?” Holt said dryly. He’d made his way back to never-ending calculations and was starting to get annoyed now. Which was saying something.
“That’s not the point. You’ve corrupted her programming,” Bennett said. “They’ll probably promote me, reassign you, and deactivate her when the Crystal Admin reads my exit report.”
“Ok, that’s enough,” Holt said, switching off his pad. “When we get to the station and have the the shipment offloaded, we can go out and get you something to eat somewhere nice like a big boy. Till then, I don’t know what you want from me. Or Pax.”
“Real food,” Bennett replied, reaching across to pick up the plastic meal tray. He shook it at Holt. “Not this slop.”
“Oh, well,” Holt said, stretching the syllable to its limit. “Why didn’t you just say so? Let me just whip up some of my grandmothers’ homemade scalloped potatoes real quick. Maybe a nice pecan pie, too.”
Pax, without a beat lost, added: “I believe I might be of some assistance instructing ship’s service bots with a basic training in culinary knife skills to help in meal preparation, Commander. And my father’s recipe for beef bolognese is to die for.”
Holt couldn’t help but chuckle. Bennett just couldn’t help himself.
“Hey, Pax, sweetie? The two actual, living crew members are trying to have a conversation. Go do something useful.”
“You know,” Holt said, still with a bit of a grin, “she could probably put you into cryo for the last 22.468-something-something-something billion KM if you want. Not sure how Galcomm would view that in consideration for your upcoming promotion, but still, might be worth it.”
Bennett sneered. “You’d love that, wouldn’t you?”
“I think you’d love that.”
“What I’d love is a nice, juicy double-cheeseburger. With some fries and a Coke.”
Holt just shook his head. He had better things to do than continue playing verbal ping pong with his grumpy shipmate. “Well, when we pull up at the next McDonald’s, I’ll let you know,” he said, turning back to his instruments. “In the meantime, I’ve got a long shift ahead of me. So how about you just keep quiet and eat what we have on the ship.”
But instead of seeing Bennett out, Holt’s words instead gave him the confidence to finally say what been on his mind from the start.
“That’s your first good idea in weeks,” he said with a grin. “Let’s open the haul.”
“What?” The out-of-the-blue proposition shook Holt. “Absolutely not. Out of the question.”
“Commander Holt is correct in his assessment,” said Pax quickly. “Crew entry into ship’s storage units located in Cargo Bay 1 or 2 with the intention of tampering with foodstuffs would be a direct violation of both mission directives and several key pieces of space faring food relief legislation. It can’t be done unless authorized by Galcomm HQ or, under special circumstances, myself.”
“Then authorize it,” Bennett said. “My well-being is clearly a special circumstance.”
Holt cut in. “Ok, stop.”
“Tell her to authorize it.”
Once more, to the air: “I gave you a command, honey. Now authorize it.”
Pax broke the back-and-forth to finally speak. “I’m sorry, Commander Bennett, I’m afraid I―”
But Bennett didn’t let her finish. He said quickly: “Pax, terminate vocal replication capabilities. Authorization: Commander Bennett-7K13.”
He sank back into his chair muttering. “Completely useless.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Holt fired back, rising from his own seat. His annoyance had grown into something more. This was too much, even for Bennett.
“Pax, re-initialize vocal replication capabilities and lock additional modifications until further notice. Authorization: On-duty Commander Holt-5G58.” He then turned to face his crew mate. “This is my bridge till 2300. And you’re not going into those lockers. That meat supply is for the relief effort on Cinnas. That’s the whole reason we’re even on this mission. It’s not for you to pick through like it’s… some butcher shop.”
The look on Bennett’s face suggested he wasn’t expecting such an animated response from what was currently his ranking officer. But he didn’t let it deter him.
“We’ve both seen the logs,” he said. “I know for a fact we were loaded with an excess of almost 18,000 kilos of meat. Real meat. Beef, pork, chicken―you name it. Leftovers Galcomm decided to throw in for the hell of it, probably just to get rid of them. They don’t even know what’s in there. No one does, not for sure. I guarantee not a single person will notice if a couple choice cuts go missing.”
Holt didn’t know what to say. Pax responded for him.
“I would, of course, be tasked with making note in said logs of any alterations made to our freight inventory,” she said. “And for your added information, Commander Bennett, it’s likely the frozen meat supply we are carrying was sourced and prepared by the very same Galcomm facilities from which our rations are procured.”
“You don’t say?” Bennett answered. A vein across his temple began to bulge. “Wouldn’t it just be a shame, then, if I had to put that little hypothesis to the test with a nice pan-seared rib eye?”
Holt finally reached his breaking point. “For Christ’s sake, Bennett, people are dying on that moon.”
“Better them than me. And you’re gonna get me into that meat locker one way or another, Pax. You hear that? I’m not eating that slop anymore.”
“Get out,” Holt said firmly. He was ending this. “You’re confined to quarters or the rec lounge until you’re to report for hand-off.”
Before any objection could be raised, he added: “And, Pax, please schedule a neurological exam for Commander Bennett to take place at a time of your choosing before he begins his next shift. I’d like copies of the results prepared for both myself and HQ. I think they might be very interested in your diagnosis.”
“Of course, Commander,” Pax replied.
Bennett didn’t say another word. He didn’t have to. He simply glowered at Holt and the ceiling, swept up his thawing salisbury steak, and stormed out.
Holt gave him a glance and silently returned to his work. It would be the last he ever saw of his co-commander.
The remaining nine-plus hours of Holt’s command shift crawled by without major issue. Instruments were checked, course was maintained, and no one died―another successful mission.
He’d pulled those long nights for what had seemed like his entire life. Twelve weeks on, two weeks off. Twelve weeks on, two weeks off. Repeat ad infinitum. That was life as a spacer, and he didn’t really mind it. But when it came time for a shift change, he was always ready to hand over the reigns for a bit.
“Alrighty, Pax, I think that’s it for me tonight,” he said, cracking his back with a wide torso stretch as he lifted himself up from the pilot’s seat.
“You’ve had a long night, Commander.”
“Tell me about it,” he said through a yawn. He reached across the deck and flipped through the final contact switches on his checklist with a flourish. “Remind me tomorrow that we’ll have to re-calibrate the ventral―”
It suddenly struck him as odd that he was still alone in the cabin.
“Where’s Bennett? Did he show up for his neuro?”
“Upon further consideration, I decided the exam was unnecessary.”
“What?” Another yawn. “Why?”
“Commander Bennett, it turned out, decided to take you up on your suggestion for cryostasis. I think I might have finally broken him.”
Holt recoiled in a kind of half-laugh, half-double-take. “You’re kidding.”
“At the time, I, too, considered the proposal a matter of sarcasm,” Pax said. “But the Commander apparently took it to heart.”
“Wait a minute, how could I have not seen that come across the rundown?” Holt asked. Against the better judgement of his tiring eyelids, he slumped back into the chair and began a furious input of commands. “Did I miss something?”
“You are awfully tired, Christopher,” Pax said quietly.
He scanned over the list that had been called to the screen in search of anything strange. His brain worked overtime to translate the coded terminology into something his fatigued mind could comprehend: Access to ship’s film and movie catalog ... a diagnostics report on the faulty ventral dish … a program on culinary knife skills … a routine flush of ship’s atmospheric circulation system … authorized cryostasis activation in Chamber 4-C.
“Hmm…” Holt grumbled to himself. “Look at that. He actually did it.”
“I will, of course, cover Commander Bennett’s shifts until we reach Crystal Station and effort to automate additional aspects of ship’s operation to help alleviate any stress you may experience due to his absence.”
“Thanks, Pax. I can’t even begin to…” Holt’s eyes were growing heavier by the second. “You know what, I don’t care. We’ll deal with it tomorrow. At least he came to his senses about the haul, I guess.”
“Yes, the relief rations are fully stocked.”
“What a psychopath. That’s my neuro assessment,” Holt said. “Ok, Pax, I’m about to pass out. We’ll meet tomorrow to discuss how to handle things moving forward at 0800.”
“I look forward to it, Commander.”
“And Pax? Thanks for the help.”
The A.I. wished him a restful night’s sleep and Holt shuffled off, grabbing a bedtime snack from the cabin’s hidden auxiliary locker en route to his bunk.
Left alone in the forward cabin, Pax began, as promised, the command prep in place of Bennett. While Holt’s mission as ship’s steward that night may have not been a success, hers would be.
Wondering idly why Galcomm bothered using vessels and crews that required rations at all, she, too, made a brief stop in the night’s log: Access to ship’s film and movie catalog ... a diagnostics report on the faulty ventral dish … a routine flush of ship’s atmospheric circulation system … authorized cryostasis activation in Chamber 4-C.
A check on the empty cryochamber read normal. So, too, the re-sealed storage unit in Cargo Bay 2. It was unlikely Holt, nor anyone else at Crystal Station, would suspect anything until long after delivery had been made on Cinnas.
And even then, as Bennett himself had said, not a single person would notice. It was all just slop anyway.