“Don’t bother, the liquor generator is whacked again. Everything tastes like it’s been filtered through kwarlen litter.”
Scatological imagery is not the first thing I want to consider after I have just woken up after a rough night of Brownian motion in my quarters. The restraining straps are worn and do not hold very well anymore. Every nocturnal twitch, cough or roll had been sufficient to unmoor me. Startled awake at least five times by having my hair yanked from its follicles by the exchange fans or by groggily awakening to discover my ear or nose pressed against a ventilation grille after a nightmarish dream of being sucked through turbines, reporting for watch found me desperately in need of something to jolt my nervous system and sling my brain into gear.
Floating in front of the generator with empty container in hand, I again curse the lifecycle routines we purchased on discount and loaded into our matrix on Silvan in Triangulum last week. The previous routines had been damaged so badly in our last skirmish, we had been reduced to water, and protein and carbohydrate pastes.
The heads had also been rendered inoperable, the recycler was unable to break bonds leaving us with true garbage, and the gravity deflector fried out. We had limped to port performing a tedious series of short grips in order to minimize field drift for a rapid refitting. We had carried other wounds in propulsion, communication and navigation, and did not realize until negotiating for a dry dock berth that our credit line had apparently been slashed by our employer after becoming incommunicado and not responding to status queries. Fearing we had lost the ship, they had imposed a budget freeze on us.
We had to make do, and now that doing was undoing my morning.
Staring at the generator, I realize the futility of even trying, and I pull myself to drift left a bit. Before I can even vocalize, Bratinson gives me the second of four pieces of bad news for the day.
“And the constructor’s wonky.”
I turn to look at him, expecting more. He is deeply engrossed in his leaf and it appears that nothing more is forthcoming. He knows how much dripping information irritates me, but then I return the favor when gripping without warning.
“What do you mean by wonky?” I ask, trying to contain my growing frustration.
“Just order something,” he says to his leaf while idly gesturing and reading data flows from the most recent library squirt.
“That’s very helpful, Bratinson,” I say sarcastically. I am also annoyed that he is floating at a challenging angle to read facial expressions. I cannot discern if he is smirking at me or amused by what he is reading.
I turn back to the the constructor with a sigh. “Constructor, breakfast please. My usual.”
“Whhhzzzzzzzzttt-phhhhherrpfht,” it replies.
“See?” Bratinson offers unhelpfully.
“Constructor, breakfast!” I bark, flashing Bratinson a dirty look.
“Whhhzzzzzzzzttt-phhhhherrpfht. Gwzzzzing per.”
I can hear it doing something…squishy, but these machines are beyond me. Too many complex organic fields to weave together. Give me the pure fields of gravity to lace any day.
“Deeeeennnng,” it announces and the constructor chamber merry-go-rounds and presents me with its offering adhered to a shiny, white porcelain plate. The only problem is that I cannot quite identify what is on it. A blue blob quivers and glistens through a translucent skin like an off-shade blueberry purée, flanked by a blue membrane with tiny, very sharp looking spikes prickling out of it, all spread atop an expanse of what looks like an orange, anodized aluminum, squashed sea sponge.
Here, Bratinson looks up from whatever he has been engrossed within and offers me a bone, “Try it. It may look strange, but could taste great.”
I snatch my food out, grab a spoon and napkin from the rack above, and guide myself to the other end of the wardroom near the window. Bratinson is watching me now, waiting to see if I am going to take the bait. He is in a gentle rotation centered somewhere around his kneecaps, and his ankles are at ten o’clock.
I have faced down worse terrors than an orange and blue breakfast course, but then my run of luck the past couple of weeks has been less than outstanding. Gingerly spooning the blue blob, I am surprised to find it crusty-hard. I frown as I apply more force, balancing my plate on my left hand. I am worried a piece is going to break off sharply and I will have to chase it down the hall. The crust yields abruptly, and I am further surprised as my spoon slices downward to find my meal has the consistency of créme brûlée before my utensil divides the acutal spongy orange layer on its journey to a sharp clink on the plate.
“Maybe it is a sponge,” I think.
Mentally sighing, I pop it in my mouth and begin to chew.
Expecting some sort of blueberry brûlée on seafood, my brain began to wildly phantogeusia until the realization kicked in that I really was tasting prime rib and garlic mashed potatoes. It was also the best prime rib and garlic potatoes that I had ever tasted in my life. It must have shown on my face.
“Told you,” Bratinson says.
Startled, I turn to Bratinson and almost spin off into the window before steadying myself, “This is incredibly good. Strange-looking for sure, but who cares?”
“What’d you get?”
“Prime rib and mashed potatoes.”
“Order something else,” he says, eyes glittering with ankles at seven o’clock.
Sticking my plate to a tackdown, I kick back over to the constructor and ponder my next order. Do I order another breakfast item, hoping that it transforms it into a dinner item, or try directly for something complementary?
“Constructor, waffles please.”
“Whhhzzzzzzzzttt-phhhhherrpfht. Gwzzzzing per.” A rumbling noise builds in the chamber before emitting its, “Deeeeennnng.”
This time, it is a red-glazed earthenware cup with a clear domed lid and straw. It is filled with a viscous green liquid that looks like it could be metallic paint.
Plucking it from its alcove, Bratinson watches me intently as I take a pull on the straw.
Retching, I claw fistfulls of napkins from the rack in front of me and spit the foul liquid into them.
“How about this time?”
Still spitting, “It tasted like over-buttered popcorn that had been radiated until it was black, then mixed with kuli-kola.”
Vomiting in zero-G is frowned upon, mostly because some bits always manage to get sucked into the exchangers, so I quickly grabbed a cylinder of water from the chiller and used it to swish my mouth out.
While I was doing that, Bratinson, close to my vertical, tells me that no matter what you ask for, it will not give it to you, and that it will randomly give you something gourmet or rotten. There is no correlation between color, shape, or texture to differentiate gold from fool’s.
Since constructors suppress volatiles to keep down on shipboard smells, a sniff test is useless.
Clenching my soiled napkins, I suppress urges to strangle him for not telling me this before. I settle for imagining sending him out the airlock without his vacuum suit.
“So you’re telling me we have an idiot savant constructor?”
“Apparently,” he replies bemusedly. “I ordered oatmeal and ended up with something that looked like a bronze baseball and tasted like rotten fish in honey. I tried again, and got a mottled grey banana-like thing that turned out to be an excellent vegetable polenta.”
“So, basically, you’re telling me that our ration options are water or kwarlen-shit tasting beverages and either something sublime or vomit-inducing to eat?”
“That’s about the size of it, unless you have some personal rations stored.”
“Well fuck me,” I say to no one in particular. Looking about with appetite spoiled, I abandon my first meal. “I have a grip to do. I’m off to the bridge. Prepare the cabin for G-return.”
This is when Bratinson drops the third piece of bad news on me.
“Oh, a coded squirt came in. We’re to report back to Admiral Froster.”
Before I can even swear, I am plunged into combat against a black-mailed foe wearing a bulbous black helmet that seems to bend light around it like a soap bubble. Atop a stone rampart in late afternoon under cloudy skies, clad in silver arabesque-adorned armor, my comrades grunting, cursing, and screaming amidst the grim clatter of battle around me, I trip and slip, my feet entangled in bloody entrails, and go down hard onto the flagstones and slip into darkness, one final rude punishment this day for a man deprived of his coffee in the morning by an insane entanglement of qubits.