Author: Ken Poyner
The replicators have decided we should all eat peanut butter and crackers; for a month the machines have been spitting out endless batches of peanut butter and crackers. Not bad peanut butter, and truly delicate crackers. But it has been a month.
Damn artificial intelligence. Yes, it learns and adapts, but to what and for whom?
At first there were discussions amongst the crew about potential nutritional deficiencies. A couple of AI geeks attempted to determine if the peanut butter or crackers were being quietly fortified. For all their commands and component swaps, they could not find a way to read the computer’s train of thought – what led it to the conclusion that peanut butter and crackers is just the right thing for all of us, what factors it had considered, what additional postulates it might have developed independently. There were philosophical discussions about how the system came into its repetitive culinary mindset; about whether it understood its own perhaps still developing artificial templates, those now stuck in its execution registers; whether it believed perhaps it could possibly not be artificial at all; or if with near human affection it cherished its thoughts.
Trouble is, in the end, we simply crashed into the fact that there was nothing we could do about it. We could speculate, but everything about the process is automatic, designed to be so.
The peanut butter and crackers keep coming. The offering must be fortified, or we would have begun to wither by now.
Psychology always wins out. The question is not nutritional, nor health outcomes, nor optimum performance. No. The real irritant is that a month of peanut butter and crackers is supremely, cataclysmically boring. It might be fortified with all that we need to survive and strive, or it might not. But it is unbearable tedium.
We lose interest in all sorts of things ever more quickly. Maintenance logs grow progressively more sparse. People stop playing board games in the community room. I stopped showering with the shapely terraformer from module 4A.
Peanut butter and crackers. Plop on the plate. Some crew personnel have dropped to two meals a day, or even one. People are losing weight, rattling around in their clothes.
I do not see a properly reportable outcome to this – for myself or for the others. Imagine how it is going to look in the log book. People have stopped repeating how many days we have left in this mission. Some will not even look out of a viewport at the stars, as it reminds them of how far we have yet to go. All that much flight time left, and possibly filled with no sustenance save peanut butter and crackers.
But just now, with eight or ten people sadly loitering in the replication room, hope well beyond us, out popped unbidden, surprisingly, wonderfully, a full single-serve marshmallow pie. Only one, left beside mounds of unclaimed churlish peanut butter and crackers. A sudden act of beauty. Something perfect in its look and apparent consistency, exceptional in its smell – so distinct from the stale odor of peanut butter. A lifeline.
We were suspended in a stunned moment of savory recognition, a glint of hope, with liberation balancing in the air. A perfect marshmallow pie on a dull, mechanical serving tray. The machine I think had a plan, and that the dangerous scrum to get that first new offering was only the beginning.