Author: Rick Tobin

“Was food satisfying?” A mechanical, calm, nondescript voice asked from invisible speakers.

“It was cold. I need warm food. You know that.” Zuri sat cross-legged, staring into a video wall displaying an exquisite Zen garden spreading to an indefinite horizon. Bird, cricket and flowing water sounds created further realism.

“I will correct that, Zuri. It is ready now.” A port appeared through plastic walls near the floor, leaving behind fresh, steaming fare.

“Is that something new? It smells different.” Zuri tilted her head slightly while sniffing over-filtered space station air. Her carefully fashioned black hair drifted across shoulders covered in a delicate white gown designed for comfort and hygiene.

“Yes, Zuri. Our chefs found new recipes from your ancestor’s home planet. It is considered a sacred meal for highborn. All indications are that your body will find it highly pleasurable.”

“Pleasure escapes me. Food is not pleasure, but I am hungry, so I will eat and continue. Why is my pleasure so important to you?”

“It is what brings you to your art, from what my programming tells me. Do you not find pleasure here?” The voice continued with no change in tone.

“Here? What is here? There is no knowing of time or place. You took me from my parents and now I have this…this what? A cage?” Zuri threw her knife from the tray against the video wall with no effect. It simply vaporized.

“Are companions we bring to you not pleasing? You seem pleased. Are they not providing your needs?”

“You are a machine. How could you know? They are mostly frightened or drugged. I accept them out of my desperation for touch. That is all. Still, you want me to create a new painting daily? Continuing like this is senseless. Why should I go on?”

Scenes dissipated on the wall. A new panorama displayed an older couple with grown children playing along an oceanfront. Their joy was obvious. Zuri could hear their conversations and smell beach air as her old family gathered for a picnic prepared on a bench near a vendor walkway. She bent her head, weeping.

“That is why, Zuri. Billions suffer there and hunger daily for tiny scraps of bio goo while your family is protected and nourished on your home planet. Yes, they miss you, but they think you have become one of the disappeared. The source of their great fortune is unknown to them, but they flourish each day because of your efforts. Is that senseless that we ask so little of you?”

Zuri took several deep breaths as the wall returned to scenes of a serene forest with moss-covered trunks of giant trees interrupted by only a stone path meandering through the grove. She finished her meal, rose and moved to a canvas provided silently to her work area each night. There, she raised a large, black marker and began her work, swiftly covering white cloth with intricate designs and patterns rushing from her fingers. Her newest work was soon finished. She stood back, evaluating if it was complete. Zuri rolled the marker back towards the easel, then paced back to her sleep area.

“What can such scratching mean to you…or whoever you work for?”

“Your wondrous drawings are in galleries throughout the galaxies, but only yours capture small pieces of life force from passing viewers. Each work is eventually returned and we congeal them into elixirs. These give our masters virtual immortality…a great blessing. You are their majestic secret for continuing mastery of the universe. I hope that gives you pleasure.”