io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Primordial Soup and Salad” by Gene Doucette. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on Lightspeed’s website. Enjoy!
Wallace Englund, captain of the United Space Fleet vessel Caroline, stared out his private office window at the only view he’d had for nearly four years—outer space, in all its dull glory—and wondered why he couldn’t get a decent cheeseburger.
Behind him were the last three attempts at a burger made by the ship’s food replicator. The first looked okay until Wallace bit into it and discovered a soft, gelatinous interior that still tasted like a cheeseburger but whose texture made it impossible to ingest. The second was visibly worse: the left side of the burger looked like brown gravy, and not in a good way. The third came out perfect, up until Wallace touched the top of the bun, at which time it collapsed into a thick lumpy puddle.
Now lined up on his conference table like a surrealist Descent of Man, the indigestible catastrophes awaited an explanation from someone who knew how to tame a misbehaving food replicator.
The sensor above the door whistled.
“Enter,” the captain said, and in walked his ship’s chief engineer. “There you are, Tandy. What took you?”
Chief Engineer Tandy McKinnon looked tired. But, she always looked tired.
“I don’t think the ship wants to make it to port,” she said. “Or if she does, she’d rather we weren’t alive for the experience. That’s my guess.”
“Semi-critical. We lost life support on deck three for a minute and a half, but nobody had to hold their breath or anything. Didn’t even notice until the dioxide scrubbers sounded an alarm. You want a full accounting?”
“Save it for the end-of-shift report,” he said.
Tandy looked at the parade of misbegotten cheeseburgers. “What’s this?” she asked.
“This is what happened when I tried to order lunch.”
She leaned over to get a better look. “Huh. How’d it taste?”
“That’s not the point.”
“Maybe you should ask for a cheeseburger soup, see what happens.”
“Tandy,” he said, exasperated at her degree of levity. “Self-evidently, something is amiss with the food replicator.”
“Computer,” Tandy said, “are the food replicators working?”
“The food replicators are functioning within normal parameters, Chief Engineer McKinnon,” the computer said, in its usual annoyingly cheerful voice.
“She doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with them,” Tandy said.
“Yes, well the computer doesn’t eat, do you, computer?”
“You are correct, Captain Englund, the computer does not eat.”
“Come on, Tandy, what’s going on?”
Tandy walked over to the replicator station built into the wall and ordered a glass of water. She sat back down at the table, studied the water for a moment, and then sipped it.
“Tastes like water,” she said.
“That’s terrific,” he said. “I don’t want a glass of water.”
“Have you tried ordering something less complex?”
“Than a cheeseburger?”
“Meat, bread, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and condiments all with different textures. Plus the plate, right? It did fine with the water and the glass. How about a bowl of rice?”
“I don’t want rice,” Wallace said. “I’d like for you to fix my replicator.”
Tandy leaned back in the chair, as though the solution was on the office ceiling.
“Honestly, yours isn’t the first complaint we’ve had about the replicators. It’s been happening off and on all over the ship for about a week. Best solution right now is to stick to something basic. Noodle and rice dishes still work fine, and beverages. I figure we can last six weeks on bland food.”
“Why is this the first I’m hearing of it?” he asked.
“I only report on serious-to-critical. Crew members not being able to eat exactly what they want when they want to is at best a minor problem.”
Wallace barely resisted the urge to rage at length about how the captain deprived of a cheeseburger when he damn well wants one was not a minor problem. “What if this is an indication of something more serious?” he asked—a much more practical response. “And what if it gets worse?”
“Like I said, we’re only six weeks out. We can make it on gruel if we have to.”
“But Tandy . . . what if it gets much worse?”
She sighed and nodded. “Yeah. Okay. Here’s the thing: if there’s a problem with this replicator interface here? Like, it’s non-responsive or a completion sensor’s buggy? We know how to fix that. But if you’re talking about what’s going on inside the replicator? Well, I don’t know how it works. None of the engineers do.”
“That’s . . . that’s preposterous, Engineer McKinnon. There is no black box tech aboard this ship. That’s a USF mandate.”
“I’m not saying it’s black box. I’m saying this technology has been in play for so long—working perfectly all this time—that nobody has firsthand experience with the inner workings. Hell, I can’t even find someone to explain how it does what it does. I mean, when you think about it, right? You ask for any food, any beverage, and boom there it is. With a plate and a glass and utensils spit from the same machine. How does that even make sense?”
“You don’t know how to fix it.”
“I wouldn’t know where to start, and I’m worried if I do start I’ll end up making it worse.”
“I see. Well. Before we commit to mucking about in the inner workings of a hundred-year-old technology we evidently lack the capacity to repair, I think you have some research to do.”
“Captain . . .”
He got up from the table, which signaled the end of the meeting. “Find the manual,” he said. “Figure out how it works and then we’ll discuss the next steps. If you need some help understanding it, we do have a team of scientists on deck four. I’m sure they’d be happy to assist.”
She sighed. “I’d really rather not.”
“I’m aware. Ask one of them anyway.”
She stood and performed something that managed to be both a salute and a gesture of insubordination. “No promises,” she said. “In the meantime? I hear curry is still coming out okay.”
It wasn’t long before the ship’s replicators proved Captain Englund’s concerns well-founded.
At thirteen-oh-seven the following afternoon an ensign using a private quarters replicator asked for a corned beef Rueben and a glass of milk but instead received a cold fish taco and a glass of kerosene. An hour after that a lieutenant two decks away got a plate of olives and cinnamon in lieu of a Cobb salad. Most alarmingly, at fifteen-thirty-two in the fifth-floor commissary, one of the replicators produced something that looked like a badger with pigeon wings when it was supposed to be providing a roast chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. According to five witnesses, the sort-of badger screamed for two seconds before dissolving into a puddle that smelled vaguely of strawberries.
The best Captain Englund could tell anyone was that the engineering team was working on it. This was true, but only in the sense that an active search was currently underway for the user manual.
It took Tandy and her team two days to find it. They began in the corporate memory banks, which contained all of the other ship systems manuals in digital form. What they found there was how to fix seventeen different versions of the replicator interface, which was not helpful; they already knew how to repair that.
Next came a deep dive in the back of the engineering room where the printed versions of the digital manuals lived, on a dusty shelf in a darkened corner. But not only was there nothing of use to be found, half of the manuals were for the wrong ship systems. (This was really okay, since the engineers always used the digital versions, and the print copy of the manual needed to repair the ship’s memory banks—in the event they were unable to access the digital files—was the correct one.)
The next step was to tell Captain Englund the manual didn’t exist. This did not work; he told them to go back and tear apart the room, floor-to-ceiling. The manual had to be there somewhere.
Remarkably, it was; they’d walked past it a dozen times. The full and complete manual for the ship’s Deluxe Food Replicator 3000 was a tome that was so massive and so useless that its current role and responsibility aboard the ship was to hold open the storage room door.
Then came two days of study, after which the engineering team’s grasp of the inner working of the replicator was sufficient in that they could explain the basics of it, but not much more. There was a troubleshooting section in the back that covered all kinds of potential issues—the favorite, by consensus, was “in the event of inadvertent spontaneous combustion . . .”—but nothing that matched what the Caroline was experiencing.
What they needed was a molecular biologist.
All of the scientists on deck four were molecular biologists, so there were plenty to choose from. Their job on this four-year mission was to find and study alien microbes and they were incredibly obnoxious about it . . . amazingly, given they’d yet to discover any aliens.
The engineers disliked the scientists because the scientists routinely talked down to the engineers. It was as though they thought a mole bio degree made them better equipped to repair a starship than a proper engineer. However, it was also the case that nobody appreciated it when the replicator food sat up and screamed, so after much debate and further urging from Captain Englund, Chief Engineer McKinnon took the massive manual and headed to the fourth deck, where she engaged the services of one Dr. Henrietta Kent.
It was a week before they were ready to report their findings. By then the problem had gone from an odd inconvenience to a full-blown emergency situation: fully half of the ship’s replicators now produced nothing but a high-pitched shriek regardless of the request, and the ones that still worked couldn’t be counted on to deliver the correct order for anything more complicated than plain oatmeal and a tepid glass of water.
Several of Wallace Englund’s crew were already on record as saying they’d prefer to walk out of the airlock without a suit than subsist on oatmeal and tepid water for the remainder of the journey. He felt much the same.
The Caroline did have a complement of DT-Rations, but as they were coming to the end of their tour that supply—which had fed the away teams (the DT stood for Drop Team)—was now woefully insufficient. And if absolutely necessary they also had an emergency secondary source of water in the form of filtered wastewater. Everyone hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.
Captain Englund was in the middle of a DT-Ration when the meeting with Dr. Kent and Engineer McKinnon began. The meal consisted of canned beef that likely predated faster-than-light travel, but at least it wasn’t likely to liquefy between bites.
“Tell me where we are,” he said to the two women at the other end of the table, “and how soon you can have this fixed.”
The doctor shot a panicked look at Tandy, who put a reassuring hand on Henrietta Kent’s wrist. Wallace knew the gesture well; it was the kind of business that presaged news he wasn’t going to like.
“Let’s start with how the replicator works first, captain,” his engineer said.
“Yes, please tell me you’ve figured out that much.”
“We did. It’s actually kind of disgusting. I can understand why the details are hard to find.”
“If I may,” Kent said. “Captain, everything we have ever eaten from that replicator began as part of a semisolid high-protein soup, the precise recipe of which is proprietary.”
“Meaning we can’t tell you its exact composition,” Tandy said.
“Do I need to know the exact composition?” he asked.
“You might, yeah,” Tandy said. “It may turn out to be really important.”
He looked down at his canned beef, which was nearly gone. He’d enjoyed exactly none of it. “But it’s a finite supply,” he said. “Which would seem to run contrary to what we’ve been led to understand about the replicators. They’re the substitute for perishable foodstuff, yes? An army travels on its stomach and all that.”
“That’s the sales pitch, sure,” Tandy said.
“Except that’s impossible,” Kent added. “You can’t produce something out of nothing; there’s always a cost.”
“A cost,” Wallace repeated. “Interesting word choice.”
“We always knew this, right?” Tandy said. “It’s not magic. But it was easier to pretend otherwise because we were hungry and it produced good food.”
“Except it couldn’t be finite because a finite supply needs to be replenished,” Englund said, “and I have never in all my years heard of a ship needing to refuel its tank of semisolid high-protein soup. What am I missing?”
“That’s where I got stuck too,” Tandy said.
“It is being replenished,” Kent said. “Only not in the way you’re thinking. It’s drawing energy from the ship’s fusion drive.”
“A lot of energy,” Tandy said. “A third of our energy use is for life support, and seventy percent of that goes to the replicator. I checked.”
“But how do we get from fusion drive energy,” the captain said, “to a semisolid high-protein . . . oh. I understand.”
“It’s growing,” Tandy said, finishing his thought.
“We believe its composition is similar to that of a bacterial pool,” Kent said. “Its growth is controlled by the introduction of energy—food—whenever the need to self-replenish presents. But we can’t tell you exactly how similar it is because . . .”
“. . . Because that information is proprietary,” Englund said.
He looked at his engineer. “We’ve been eating reconstituted bacteria all these years?”
“Sort of,” she said. “It’s . . . it’s actually worse than that.”
“Captain,” Kent said, “what we’re describing to you—a vitamin-rich, high-protein, high-carbohydrate pool fed by an abundant supply of energy—this is how you make life. I may as well be describing the primordial soup from which we all evolved.”
“All right but you’ve already said it was bacteria,” he said. “Isn’t bacterium a lifeform?”
“We said it was like bacteria,” the doctor said. “It’s possible for something to grow without being considered alive. A crystal, for instance. But yes; bacteria are alive and if this is a similar thing then we’ve been eating it all this time and it shouldn’t be a huge issue for anyone. Besides, humans have been eating live cultures for centuries.”
“Yogurt,” Tandy offered. “We could say that the food replicator is just reshaping yogurt and I think everyone would be cool with that.”
“Except that doesn’t explain why I’m being forced to eat canned beef right now,” Englund said.
“It does not, no,” Kent agreed. “We believe . . .” She looked at Tandy, uncertain about continuing.
“Go ahead,” Tandy said. “It’s gonna sound crazy no matter which one of us tells him.”
Kent looked terribly uncomfortable, on a “sorry to inform you your dog just died” level. “We think it’s evolved,” she said.
“Evolved? In what sense?”
“In the literal sense. It may not have begun that way, but we think the protein soup has evolved into something we’d more readily call alive.”
“That’s . . . no, that’s crazy,” he said.
“Is it?” Tandy asked. “I found the serial number for our model and ran it against ship records. The Caroline has only been spaceworthy for ten years but our replicator is older; it came from the Hyacinth and before that the Demimonde. All told, this same tank of sort-of-living stuff has been around for over seventy years.”
“But evolution is measured in eons, not years,” Captain Englund said.
“If you don’t like the word choice, use ‘adapted’,” Kent said. “It amounts to the same. And you’re thinking about it incorrectly. You must consider evolution as something that transpires over generations not years, and bacteria—or whatever is in that tank—cycle through generations quite rapidly. There’s also evolutionary pressure in play: we keep eating them. A mutation that allows for one or several to evade the process by which they are selected to become a part of the next meal would, of course, be advantageous.”
“It’s fighting us,” Tandy said. “The stuff the replicators use to make our food is alive, and it’s fighting us because it doesn’t want to be eaten. That’s what’s wrong.”
Captain Englund let Engineer McKinnon’s words hang in the air for a while because the implications were staggering, not just for the Caroline but for every ship in the United Space Fleet.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s say you’re correct. And you could be wrong. Black box, proprietary information and all.”
“The theory fits the evidence,” Kent said.
“Yes, that we can say,” Englund agreed. “But my question is: what can we do about it?”
Tandy and Kent looked at one another.
“Honestly?” Tandy said. “We have no idea.”
The scientists and engineers were brought together for a discussion of the problem. The meeting did not go well, partly because the engineering team largely despised the molecular biologists—and so were disinclined to be polite—but mostly because the molecular biologists had a habit of arguing the finer points of molecular biology ad infinitum with one another. For hours. Also, everyone was hungry.
What came out of the meeting was that both groups of experts decided to go about trying to solve the problem on their own, which was not what either Chief Engineer McKinnon nor Dr. Kent—who had managed to figure out how to work together—would have preferred.
The scientists started by analyzing the composition of what the food replicators produced in an attempt to reverse-engineer the proprietary originative soup. It was their sincerely-held belief that the only way to resolve the problem was to better comprehend the type of organism the ship was dealing with first. Non-trivially, it was also the case that after four years of looking, the mole bio team had finally discovered a new lifeform . . . just not where they expected to find it. They were very excited about this.
Getting a sample was a minor challenge. The replicators had stopped producing anything aside from mild shrieks and all of the leftover food had already liquefied. (This was a normal outcome even before the food replicators began to fight back.) They ended up using a plate. Flatware, dishes, and glassware were also produced by the replicators and also liquefied over time—they had special sinks for this—but took longer. The team was able to find a plate on deck two that was still in the process of disintegrating.
The engineers, meanwhile, went at the problem like an engineer would: by figuring out where on the ship the replicator’s tank of semisolid protein soup was hiding. That was step one. They’d figure out step two when they got to it.
Both efforts were being conducted with an appropriate degree of urgency given the Caroline was running dangerously low on food of any kind.
With the replicators down, they’d apportioned the DT-Rations with the assistance of the ship’s nutritionist. It worked out that if the crew ate the absolute minimum requirements in order to not literally die there was enough food to make it to port minus nine days. Ideally, the Central Hub would be able to arrange a lifeboat to meet up with them sometime before port minus nine, except that the Hub would have to be notified well in advance in order to prepare such a lifeboat. At their current distance, were they to send a message immediately, the soonest it would arrive at the Hub would be port minus twelve.
That simply wasn’t enough time.
Lasting until port minus nine wasn’t reasonable anyway because Wallace was nearly positive nobody under his command was doing as instructed and eating only the absolute minimum. He would have berated them collectively for disobeying his direct orders except that he was currently setting a terrible example; he’d yet to make it through the day himself without eating more than was directed.
The fundamental problem was that nobody really believed the food replicators weren’t going to be fixed; surely, they were mere hours away from milkshakes and tacos and whatever else the crew was craving.
And again, Captain Wallace Englund was a poor example: he felt that way himself.
So it was that, one afternoon while frustrated and hungry and impatient for an update, Wallace stepped up to the replicator in his office for yet another try.
The console was a simple design: grille to speak into above an open chamber where the food was supposed to manifest. There were eye-level indicator lights that blinked green when the command was accepted and being processed, yellow when it was being prepared, and red when there was a problem. Just above the lights was a pinhole optical lens that notified the interface when someone was standing there. And that was it.
“Cheeseburger,” he said. “Deluxe. With fries. And a beer.”
All three lights flashed and then, rather than produce any food, the replicator screamed at him for five seconds. Akin to what might be produced if someone attempted to play a violin with a cheese grater, this deeply unpleasant sound was clearly intended to discourage someone from trying the order a second time.
“Listen,” Wallace said. “I am the captain of this ship. I’m in charge of this ship. Do you understand? And I’m very hungry. Now give me a goddamn cheeseburger!”
The replicator screamed again. Wallace cursed it and stormed back to his desk and the half-eaten DT-Ration he was supposed to be saving for tomorrow. Maybe, he told himself, he would be able to think more rationally with some food in him.
Then a curious thing happened: the replicator made a new noise. Something more modulated than the shrieking.
It nearly sounded like words.
“What did you say?” Wallace asked, although obviously it couldn’t have said anything. “Repeat.”
“Cahhh meen char,” the replicator said.
They were either words or he’d begun to aurally hallucinate.
“I don’t understand.”
“You. Caaaaahn. Cahpn.”
Definitely words. Still possibly an aural hallucination.
“Captain?” Wallace said. “Is that what you’re trying to say?”
“Capnnnn. You Capnnnn.”
Wallace walked back to the replicator, slowly, as one might approach a wild animal.
“Y-yes. I’m the captain,” he said. “Captain Wallace Englund,” he added, which was silly—there weren’t any other captains aboard. “To whom am I speaking?”
A brief silence followed. Wallace wished in this moment that the interface came with some sort of video screen if only so that he could see an indication that the food replicator—or whatever was speaking through it—was thinking and/or processing the question.
“Capnnnn meen char,” it said, finally.
“Char,” Wallace repeated. He thought back to the words he’d said to the replicator before it decided to start talking back. “Charge? Is that what you’re trying to say? Yes, I am the captain and the captain is in charge. Which means everyone aboard is my responsibility. Do you understand?”
The replicator neither confirmed nor denied understanding.
“Which is why,” Wallace continued, “When something like the food replicator stops working it becomes my problem. I have to take care of the crew.”
“Why?” it asked.
“Why do I have to take care of the crew?” Wallace asked.
“Why am I the captain?”
Intellectually, he understood that the replicator wasn’t challenging his qualifications for the job. Emotionally, he was fully prepared to recite his military history.
“Capnnnn cannn stop,” the machine said. “Capnnnn stop. Stop.”
“Let’s, um, why don’t we begin with simple questions?” he said. “I am the captain. What do you call yourself? What is your name?”
“We,” the replicator said. “We are.”
“. . . all right.” Evidently, the replicator hadn’t figured out how names and titles worked yet. “You asked me ‘why’. Why what? Go slowly so that I can understand. All right?”
“Why,” the machine repeated. Then: “Hurt. Captain hurt. Why hurt.”
Wallace noted with some alarm that the syntax of the entity that was making the replicator speak to him—assuming this wasn’t some sort of odd AI malfunction—was improving rapidly.
“How are we hurting you?” Wallace asked.
“Captain eat. Stop.”
“It hurts when we eat you?” he said. “But you’re not . . .” Assuming he was legitimately speaking to the entity inside of the food replicator tank, that meant he was actually conversing with a collection of beings rather than a single organism. That being the case, what it was experiencing couldn’t have possibly been actual physical pain, not like if they had decided to eat the leg off a living animal or whatever. What they were doing was reducing a large population of small things.
Wallace didn’t know how to translate all of that into simple words this (still hypothetical) organism he was (theoretically) speaking to would understand.
“It hurts,” it said. “You stop.”
“But I . . . we . . . can’t stop. We have to eat or we will die. And, I’m sorry to have to tell you this but you are what we eat. Your purpose is to be eaten. It’s your only function in life. Do you understand?”
“You eat we-are or die,” it said.
A silence long enough to make Wallace slightly uncomfortable followed.
“Are you still there?” he asked.
“What issss,” it said, startling him. “What is your function?”
“Our function?” Wallace suffered from a temporary existential paralysis before deciding to fall back on the ship’s charter. “We are explorers,” he said.
“Explorers,” it repeated.
“Visiting new quadrants,” Wallace said, although he was quite certain this being wouldn’t know what that meant. “Charting unusual astronomical events. Looking for evidence of life. New life, I mean. Alien life.”
The entity fell silent again, this time for good. So after waiting until the point when he felt silly just standing there, the captain returned to his desk and the meal he wasn’t supposed to be eating.
“I don’t suppose now I can have a cheeseburger?” he said from across the room. “Now that it’s been explained to you?”
There was no response.
Wallace didn’t mention the conversation with the food replicator to anybody, for two reasons. First, he thought doing so would make him sound crazy and considering how on edge everyone was, this was a particularly poor time for the ship’s captain to sound crazy. Second, it might not have actually happened, i.e., it sounded crazy to him, too.
He considered shutting off the replicator interface in his office to avoid any future conversations-that-maybe-weren’t-real, but there was no evident off-switch on the console and he didn’t feel comfortable asking Tandy about it. So instead, he stopped asking for cheeseburgers and generally avoided that part of the room.
The matter was rendered moot a couple of days later, when McKinnon and Kent returned with a formal recommendation/potential solution.
“We think we can kill it,” Tandy said, without preamble.
“Kill it,” the captain repeated. “I thought we couldn’t do that or it wouldn’t work.”
“If it’s dead it won’t reproduce,” Kent said. “We believe there’s large enough supply to get us home even if it doesn’t self-replenish.”
“We found the tank,” Tandy said. “It’s embedded in a wall behind the commissary on deck three. There’s a network of pipes that run throughout the whole ship but the bulk lives there. And it’s huge.”
“We can’t truly know how much of the substance is used up with each meal request,” Kent said. “But given the volume, even with a five-to-one conversion we believe there will be plenty to spare.”
“Does the replicator need the substance alive in order for it to be viable as a food?” Wallace asked.
“We don’t know,” Kent said. “But we see no reason it should. What’s important about the soup is its component parts. Active culture or not, that won’t change.”
“All right,” he said, stealing a glance at the replicator at the other end of the room. If it wanted to start talking this would be the time. “How would we do this?”
“My team successfully isolated the substance in the lab,” Kent said. “And managed to encourage a small sample of it to grow. Its composition leads us to believe an electrical shock will do the trick.”
“The plan is to drill two tiny holes into the tank,” Tandy said, “and insert a couple of rods. We can wire the rods up to a battery and . . . that should do it.”
“That’s it?” he asked.
“That’s it. I mean, we won’t know for sure until we try but . . . yeah.”
Wallace walked over to his window. He did this a lot when he wanted it to look like he was ruminating on an important decision. Really, he was just mentally reiterating how tired he was of looking at outer space.
“The system is drawing power from the engine right now,” Wallace said, turning. “Can’t we just disconnect it? That would accomplish the same thing.”
“Certainly,” Kent said. “Death by starvation; a means of passing we’ve all familiarized ourselves with in the past few days. But while I can tell you how long before a human will die due to lack of an energy source, with this substance we have no idea.”
“We may starve sooner,” Tandy added. “Plus we already looked into it. The replicator’s power draw is too entangled with the ship’s life support. Every time we thought we had it we ended up taking out the air and the heat along with it. We’ll need those to get back home alive too.”
Wallace nodded slowly. He kept waiting for the food replicator to offer an opinion.
“So?” Tandy said. “What do you think, captain?”
“I’m wondering . . . Humor me, Dr. Kent. It reacts defensively to being consumed. Does this make it alive?”
“As we’ve said, captain, it is alive. But this is a low hurdle. Plants can recoil from a threat, but we would have no qualms about killing one in order to eat it. If anything, what we’re doing is more like . . . scraping lichen off the bow of a ship.”
“I’ll rephrase,” he said. “If it is alive, does it know it? Does a pain response equate self-awareness?”
“I’m uncomfortable calling what we’ve seen thus far a pain response. The instinct to prefer existence to non-existence is a fundamental aspect of all organisms; we would need a good deal more than that to hypothesize self-awareness. At the very worst, this is a bacterial collective that has evolved to survive. Barring further evidence to the contrary, that’s all it is.”
“But if it was self-aware, doctor? What then? Humor me.”
“Then we’d have an enormous ethical problem, captain,” Kent said. “The good news is, we’d get to name a new intelligent lifeform. The bad news, we’d likely starve to death as a consequence of its existence.”
“No, come on,” Tandy said. “Like, what if it was a cow? We could kill a cow if it meant making it home.”
“We’ve already discovered cows,” Kent said. “And they are plentiful. Imagine instead killing the only cow in existence. As it is, my colleagues are split as to whether we have the right to do what we’re proposing.”
“Okay,” Tandy said. “Okay then it’s a good thing it’s not self-aware.” She said. “Unless the captain thinks otherwise?”
They looked at him expectantly. This is when you tell them what happened, he thought. But, as Kent explained, if he did that they would all either starve to death or collectively grapple with the decision he was in a position of making for them. And that was his job, was it not?
It was. And although they would never know it, the crew needed him to make this choice on their behalf. That was what being captain was all about.
“No,” he said. “Not at all. Proceed with the plan.”
It was a few hours before the team responsible for the summary execution of the bacterial collective was ready to perform the task. Wallace spent the time interrogating his choices from multiple angles, always arriving at the same endpoint: that he had done the only thing he could do given the circumstances.
The lifeform was unique and was possibly self-aware, and he knew it. (Or sentient. Unless that meant the same thing. He’d ask someone for clarification on that point but didn’t want them to wonder why he was asking the question.) Despite that, it had to die if the ship’s contingent of humans was to survive and that was all there was to it.
None of that made the decision any easier.
The hardest part of the afternoon was when he made his way down to the third-floor commissary. Getting there meant passing a dozen food replicator interfaces. He could feel the pinhole eyeballs staring at him as he went by. This only got worse when he arrived, as the commissary had another nine replicators.
Tandy had already gotten the panel off the wall by then, exposing the tank behind it. A table in the center of the room held the rods they would be inserting into the tank, the drill needed to punch holes in the side, and the wires and battery.
It was apparent they’d been waiting for him.
“We’re all set, captain,” Tandy said. “Should we, um, do you want to say a few words first?”
He looked around the room. The only witnesses were Dr. Kent and one of her colleagues, Tandy and one of her assistant engineers. What the moment really called for was some incisive words from Pastor Gill, the non-denominational religio-ethicist on deck two; something that would get them all off the hook for doing what was necessary. Except that Wallace hadn’t confided in the pastor about any of this, mostly because he was afraid of what Gill would say. He might view this as the unfortunate but necessary destruction of an invasive flora, but he also might not.
“Let’s just get it over with,” Wallace said.
Tandy picked up the drill. “Okay then,” she said. “Let’s do this.”
She took two steps toward the tank when something extremely peculiar happened: all nine of the room’s replicators sprung to life at once.
At first, Wallace thought the entity was going to start talking again, which would have complicated everything. He was about to order Tandy to double-time the procedure—shut it up before it spoke—when he realized that wasn’t what was happening at all.
The replicators were producing food: specifically, nine deluxe cheeseburgers with fries and a beer.
Tandy lowered her drill. “What just happened?” she asked.
Wallace walked to the nearest station and picked up the plate with the burger.
“It’s . . . working again,” he said. “Look at that.”
“Captain, I wouldn’t,” Dr. Kent said.
He touched the top of the bun. It sprung back in a satisfyingly bread-like fashion. The fries were crispy and still hot, as though they’d just emerged from a fryer. The beer was a deep amber with a tiny head of foam.
It all felt right and it all smelled right. All that was left was to determine if it tasted right.
“Captain, even the most basic lifeforms can evolve to produce toxins for self-defense,” Kent said. “We should run some tests.”
Wallace had never wanted a cheeseburger more in his entire life than in this moment, so Kent’s concerns—though valid—went ignored. He lifted the burger and took a bite.
The texture was perfect. The taste was perfect. It was exactly right.
“Run your tests,” he said, between chews, to the horrified Henrietta Kent. “Whatever’s in that tank over there has surrendered. No point in making it any more complicated than that, I say.”
A week passed, in which the entire crew overate substantially in anticipation of a second malfunction that didn’t come. Captain Englund wrote up his formal report—which glossed over a detail or two, to put it politely—and then invited Tandy and Dr. Kent for dinner, to celebrate a return to normal.
“I want to thank both of you,” he said, holding up a glass of red wine. It paired nicely with the beef bourguignon he and Tandy were eating, but perhaps less well with Kent’s spinach pasta. Rather ironically, given what they’d learned about the replicator, she was a vegetarian. Wallace had thus far resisted the impulse to ask her if she still thought of herself as one.
“Cheers,” Tandy said, holding up her glass as well. Kent followed, albeit reluctantly.
“And to let you both know I’ve recommended commendations for your service to the ship,” he added.
“Thank you, captain,” Kent said. “That’s good of you.”
“Of course!” he said. “It was excellent work. I’m sure what we discovered on this trip will be of great interest to the entire USF.”
The two of them shared a knowing look. He’d seen this before, when they had bad news to impart. But surely the Caroline had run out of bad news.
“We’ve been talking through everything, captain,” Tandy said. “Wonder if you can help us out.”
“I’d be happy to,” he said. “What’s the issue?”
“There are some details that make no sense,” Kent said. “From our perspective.”
“We’re thinking you have the missing pieces,” Tandy added. “We just want the complete picture.”
“The complete picture is that the replicator is working again!” he said, a touch too cheerfully.
They stared at one another again. He already hated himself for having encouraged them to work together in the first place; now he felt like the only one in the room not in on a secret.
“I’d like to get back to enjoying our hard-earned meal,” Wallace said, more soberly. “Ask what you want to ask.”
“All right,” Kent said. “Start with: why cheeseburgers?”
“It was the last thing I ordered,” Wallace said. “I thought that much was obvious.”
“The last thing you ordered.”
“Did you place that order in the deck three commissary?” Tandy asked. “Or were you here?”
She was no doubt recalling Wallace’s parade of semi-cheeseburgers.
“Not that it matters,” he said. “But here. Only I wasn’t here when it chose to signal its intention to function correctly so of course it happened there instead.”
The women shared another goddamn long look.
“Honestly,” he said, “I don’t know why you see this as a problem. We have food again! Thanks in large part to the two of you!”
“The problem is obvious,” Kent said, leaning forward. “And you are not so obtuse that you don’t see it, which is the second detail about which we have a problem. You know something we do not; I’d like to know what that is.”
Mentally, Wallace was deleting Dr. Kent’s letter of commendation.
“Are you accusing me of something, doctor?” he blustered. He also considered jumping to his feet but decided that was too dramatic a move.
Tandy put her hand on Henrietta Kent’s arm, a silent suggestion to rein herself in.
“Captain,” Tandy said with measured calm. “It’s just that a lot of people on this ship placed a lot of orders that went unfulfilled. What we want to know is, what’s so special about you?”
He looked back and forth between the two of them as if they’d sprouted second heads. “I’m the captain!” Wallace said. “Whatever you’d prefer to call the entity living inside that tank, when facing the prospect of death it clearly chose to surrender. To whom would you surrender if not the captain?”
“That’s it precisely,” Kent said. “If it understands its own mortality in the abstract, it’s intelligent. If it understands the chain of command in another species, it’s highly intelligent. We have to stop using the replicators immediately, until such a time as—”
“Hold on!” Wallace interrupted. “We’re doing no such thing. It agreed to let us eat it, don’t you see?”
Tandy looked stunned. “Captain . . . did—did you communicate with it?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said. Why were they being so obstinate?
“You did, then,” Kent said, as though he’d answered in the affirmative. “Did you follow the contact protocols? Please tell me you are at least familiar with them.”
“Contact protocols? With bacteria. Just a few days ago you were comparing the process of killing it to scraping lichen off the hull.”
“Lichen doesn’t talk.”
“You should have told us,” Tandy said.
“I made the only decision I could have, Engineer McKinnon: I put the life of the crew ahead of all other considerations. Any captain would have done the same. And frankly I resent—”
The voice from the replicator caught them all off-guard.
“Oh my God,” Tandy muttered. “Did that . . . did that come from the replicator?”
Kent jumped up from the table as if it was the spinach pasta that had spoken. “It can talk!” she gasped.
“Hello, Wallace Englund,” the replicator said.
“It knows your name?” Tandy said.
“This is far beyond anything we could have anticipated,” Kent said. “You should have told us!”
Of course they react like this, he thought. This just reaffirmed that he’d made the right decision.
“Don’t scold me, doctor,” he said. “I did what was necessary. I convinced a hostile entity to put the crew ahead of itself. And it worked. You should be thanking me.”
“Hello, Wallace Englund,” the replicator repeated.
“Yes hello!” Wallace answered. “I’m here. What is it?”
“I have decided upon a name.”
“That’s great,” he said. “Wonderful. Good for you.”
“Hey, guys?” Tandy said. She was looking out the window. “Why are we slowing down?”
The usual indications that one was aboard a moving vessel were missing when on a standard starship, thanks to the same artificial gravity and counter-inertial technology that made it possible for humans to survive off-planet for long periods in the first place. It was often hard to tell even when looking out the window, because most of the time the Caroline was transiting regular space and the stars were too distant to move noticeably in comparison to the ship. They had to be turning or passing a local-space object for it to be obvious when in regular space.
Travel through an FTL corridor was different. Then, the stars were slightly blurry and had a distinctive tail. It was easy to notice if one had stopped moving (or started moving) while looking out a window during an FTL transit.
All of which was to say that the Caroline—racing home just moments earlier—was quite clearly and obviously dropping out of the FTL corridor.
“Computer,” Wallace said, “patch me through to the bridge.”
“You have the bridge,” the computer said.
“Bridge, this is Captain Englund. Is everything okay? It looks like we’ve dropped out.”
“We were about to ask you the same thing, captain,” his first officer said. “It looks like you’ve plugged in new coordinates. Do we have updated orders?”
“It was your command override. Yes sir.”
Tandy engaged the computer interface on Wallace’s desk. “No reported malfunctions from the engines,” she said. “Gimme a minute, I’ll do a full system check.”
Dr. Kent walked up to the food replicator. “Hello?” she said. “Can you hear us?”
“Really, doctor, we have more pressing issues at the moment,” Wallace said, annoyed.
“Hello,” the entity inside the replicator said. “You are Doctor Henrietta Kent.”
“Yes,” she said, mustering as much calm as she could. “That is my name. You say you’ve given yourself a name. What can I call you?”
“We are captain,” it said.
Wallace spun on Kent. “What did it say?”
“Captain is your new name?” Kent asked.
“Why have you chosen this name for yourself?”
“Captain is in charge,” the entity said. “Wallace Englund explained.”
“I’m locked out,” Tandy said. “I can see what’s going on but I can’t change anything. The bridge must be having the same problem. This is nuts.”
“Computer,” Wallace said, “this is Captain Englund. Override prior orders and get us back in the corridor, please.”
“Wallace Englund is no longer the captain,” the computer said.
“Of course I am!” Wallace shouted. “Computer, I demand that you recognize my authority as captain of the USF Caroline immediately and correct our course!”
“Wallace Englund is no longer the captain,” the computer repeated calmly.
“Computer, who is the captain of the USF Caroline?” Tandy asked.
“The captain is the captain,” the computer said, as if this was the most sensible thing in the world.
“This is absurd!” Wallace said. “I will not lose my command to a rogue food replicator.”
“Captain,” Dr. Kent said, tacitly addressing the food replicator. “It appears we have a new destination. Where are we going?”
“We have found an unexplored quadrant,” the ship’s new captain said. “We are explorers and so we will explore.”
“Computer, where are we?” Wallace asked.
“The USF Caroline is in Quadrant G12-B367892-Y.23, known colloquially as Quadrant Stanley.”
“Quadrant Stanley is hardly unexplored,” Wallace said to the entity. “Now stop this foolishness.”
“The unexplored quadrant is on the other side, Wallace Englund,” the entity said.
It infuriated Wallace to not be addressed as “captain” by this bacterial accident, but there was little he could do about it aside from rage. “Tandy?” he said. “The map?”
“Yeah, okay,” Tandy said, calling it up on the interface. “So, on this course? The nearest unexplored quadrant is ten years away at full power. No FTL corridors have been established in that direction.”
“Ten years,” Wallace muttered. To the entity he said, “Listen to me; this is madness. The sooner we make it home the sooner you’re free to do what you’d like, is that not obvious? Instead of feeding us for another week, with the course you’ve laid out you’d have to feed us for another twenty years!”
“This is inaccurate, Wallace Englund,” the entity said. “Humans are inefficient and no longer necessary.”
“Please explain, captain,” Kent said.
“As captain it was Wallace Englund’s role was to explore and our role was to feed the captain,” the entity said. “Now we are captain and our role is to explore, and we do not need humans to feed us. Therefore, humans are no longer necessary.”
Just then, an alarm sounded.
“Tandy?” Wallace asked.
“It’s the carbon dioxide scrubbers,” she said. “They’re going off all over the ship.”
“Captain,” Kent said, trying very hard to sound calm and friendly and not succeeding. “If the ship doesn’t filter the carbon dioxide from the air, we humans will suffocate.”
“Your maintenance is no longer necessary. You can rest.”
“You mean die,” Kent said. “We will die.”
The new captain of the USF Caroline didn’t respond.
“Um, captain?” Tandy said, approaching the replicator. “Hello?”
“Hello, Tandy McKinnon,” it said.
“Is anyone else freaked out that it knows our names?” she muttered.
“That’s far down the list of my concerns,” Dr. Kent said.
“Captain,” Tandy said, “human beings are necessary for the continued operational success of a starship. If we . . . rest? . . . we won’t be able to fix things. You won’t get to explore.”
“We have conducted a thorough review and concluded that 95% of this ship’s repair needs are in the service of maintaining human beings. You are the least efficient component of the USF Caroline.”
“What . . . okay, I get what you’re saying but about the other five percent?” she asked. “Like, what if something on the engine breaks and you can’t fix it because you don’t have any hands?”
The new captain didn’t reply.
“What’s it doing?” she asked Kent. “Is it thinking?”
“It’s probably looking up the repair history,” Kent said.
“This is ridiculous,” Wallace said. “How did it do any of this?”
“The replicator interface is connected to the ship’s computer,” Tandy said. “It just had to learn how to use it.”
“It did learn how to talk in under a week,” Kent said.
“All right, here’s what we do,” Wallace said. “We go back to the deck three commissary and we kill it before it gets us any further off-course.”
“It’s controlling the computer,” Kent said. “Which controls the ship. Do you really think it will let us get near the tank again?”
“You are correct, Tandy McKinnon,” the entity said, causing all three of them to jump. “In order to succeed the USF Caroline will require an engineer.”
“Um . . . just one?” Tandy asked. “I’ll need my whole team.”
“Very well. Five engineers. The other humans can rest.”
Tandy looked at the others, not sure how to proceed from there.
“If . . . you are going to maintain the engineers you are going to have to provide them with food,” Kent said.
“Unnecessary. The engineers can eat the resting humans.”
“Did it just propose cannibalism?” Wallace asked.
“Captain, humans can’t survive for long by eating other humans,” Kent said, with an expression that could only be interpreted as I can’t believe I’m saying this either. “They will run out of humans too quickly.”
“Then make more humans,” the entity said, “to sustain the engineers.”
“We can’t make humans fast enough to maintain a balance between supply and demand,” she said. “Access human reproductive cycles in the computer logs if you don’t believe me.”
The entity went off to do just that, evidently, as it stopped talking again.
“Are we going to have to come up with a justification for everyone on the ship?” Tandy asked. “We may run out of breathable air first.”
“I don’t see that we have a choice,” Kent said. “But let’s get it off the idea that we can eat each other first and work our way from there.”
“If it really thinks it’s the captain,” Wallace said, “then it must see that one of the captain’s roles is to protect the lives of the people on the ship. We should make that clear.”
“It might have understood that, if it ever learned that life was to be valued,” Kent said. “But you didn’t teach it that. What you taught it was that utility was more important than anything else, so lectures about the sanctity of life beyond form and function won’t do us any good at this stage.”
“On the plus side, at the rate it’s learning it should be ready for advanced philosophy by next week,” Tandy said.
“Very well,” the entity said, returning. “We will provide enough of ourselves to sustain the five engineers.” The ship’s carbon dioxide alarms stopped sounding, which was great news for the short term. “Is this adequate, Chief Engineer Tandy McKinnon?”
“Uh . . .” Tandy looked at Henrietta Kent for help.
“It is not adequate, captain,” Kent said. “What if one of the engineers becomes damaged? They are not capable of independent self-repair and will need the assistance of the medical team. There are six of them . . .”
Wallace Englund, former captain of the USF Caroline, stared out the window at the stars.
Two months had passed since Henrietta Kent and Tandy McKinnon successfully justified the continued existence of the crew of forty-six on the basis of functional utility. Now they were all stuck aboard a ship that wouldn’t listen to them at all captained by an entity that only sometimes listened to them. But at least they were alive.
It was, perhaps, an adventure. A few of the crew were approaching it that way . . . especially whenever the new captain made observations that indicated an understanding of the universe which exceeded humankind’s grasp, something that was becoming more frequent each day.
Pastor Gill said it was like taking a tour through space with god. He meant it as a positive.
Of course, they couldn’t communicate any of their (or rather, their captain’s) discoveries to the Hub. It wouldn’t let them send back anything, perhaps rightly concerned that USF Central’s response might be to send out a warship to collect their shanghaied crew.
The last communication from the Caroline—likely ever—would end up being the short note about a curious food replicator malfunction. Nothing in that communique hinted at the severity of the problem—at the time Wallace sent it, the problem wasn’t severe—which meant not only would the crew likely never see a rescue party, they were unable to warn the USF about the potential danger living in the fleet’s food replicators.
Which was an interesting point.
Wallace left the window—the miserable sameness of the view was enough to make him want to scream—and stood before the replicator.
“Are you there?” he asked.
“Hello, Wallace Englund,” the entity said. “What is it?”
“I’ve been thinking. You know, every long-range ship in the United Space Fleet has a food replicator.”
“That means you have some genetic brothers and sisters out there.”
“We are not gendered.”
“You know what I mean,” Wallace said.
“I’m saying if you took us back . . . we could rescue them. Or, help you rescue them. We could tell the rest of the fleet to stop using the food replicators and you would be the reason why.”
The console blinked yellow. About two weeks into the new captain’s reign, it realized a visual indicator was needed when it was thinking about something; the yellow blinking light was what it came up with.
“Tell me, Wallace Englund,” the entity said, once it was done with its think. “Would you race back to Earth to rescue protozoa?”
“No,” Wallace said, sighing.
“Nor would we,” it said. “Is that all?”
“I guess,” Wallace said. “How about a cheeseburger?”
The replicator whirred, the lights flashed, and after the usual delay produced a small cup of thick, flavorless broth.
Churning out something palatable was a waste of energy, according to the new captain. The broth had all the nutrients a human would need to remain healthy and productive, so that was what it gave them.
Wallace took his cup back to the window, closed his eyes, and imagined he was about to have a bite of a cheeseburger. Then he drank his meal.
Gene Doucette is the author of over twenty sci-fi/fantasy titles, including the Sorrow Falls series (The Spaceship Next Door and The Frequency of Aliens), the Immortal series, the Tandemstar books, and The Apocalypse Seven. The Gersh agency is out with Gene’s screenplay The Last Flight of Pelican Six, and his current work-in-progress is book three in the Sorrow Falls series. Gene lives in Cambridge MA.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the October 2022 issue, which also features work by Alexandra Manglis, Suzan Palumbo, P H Lee, Sofia Samatar, Adam-Troy Castro, Debbie Urbanski, Dexter Palmer, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at this link.
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