Lily measured the precise thickness of the piece of pale white bread and calibrated the blade to slice it exactly in half. She added a scant layer of spread and laid on the perfectly paper-thin, if overly pale, cucumber slices. Then she carefully trimmed off the crusts and sliced the sandwich diagonally twice into four perfect triangles. It was a shame the cucumbers were so white; ghostly renditions of the pastel green they should be. They were as close as she could manage in the lower deck hotbeds, just as the oil-based spread was as close as she could get to butter. It wasn't likely that anyone would notice, even if anyone should come to afternoon tea who had tasted real butter in the past century.
Which of course, no one on the ship had.
She scanned the small kitchen. Zane was due to arrive any minute. Zane Thomas was born in Dorking in the county of Surrey in England in 2037. He had just turned twenty when he joined the passengers of the Mayflower for their epic journey. And now he came every Sunday to afternoon tea, never missed a week, not ever. That's what she loved about Zane: dependable, responsible. He didn't shirk his duties and he didn't leave her alone with her cucumber sandwiches, not once.
The water came to a boil. Lily checked her sensors and found Zane passing the laboratory module on his way to the hold. She measured out the tea leaves into the pot and checked the water temperature once more before pouring.
The tea set was one of the few luxuries on the ship where every centimetre packed tight. Switches and monitors covered the sloping walls, although no one ever used them. Lily was plugged in and never needed to. The rest were sleeping. All except for Zane, whose footsteps she heard climbing the ladder to the kitchen. She switched on the fibre-optics, lighting the way for him. He poked his head up the hatch and clambered in.
"Lily." Zane sat down heavily on the pull-out chair. He'd gained a bit of weight. The stubble on his chin and cheeks was turning grey.
She laid the table with the dainty blue Victorian china tea set: a large plate for the sandwiches and a small plate for Zane. There was nothing to put in the milk jug but she placed it next to the sugar bowl anyway. Finally, she placed a fat pink plastic rose next to the cup and saucer. It was all about the details. Afternoon tea wasn't a meal, afternoon tea was a ritual. It was important to get everything right. Zane should appreciate the precision. He had just finished his theology degree before joining the Mayflower and you couldn't be more influenced by ceremony than that.
"You should shave," she told him.
Zane moved a triangle of sandwich onto his plate and pushed it around before nibbling off a corner. "S'pose so."
Lily checked the teapot and filled his cup before dropping two sugar cubes in. Another glance at Zane and she dropped a third one in. He looked like he needed it.
She waited seventeen seconds after he'd had a sip and began the small talk. "Did you know that the cucumber sandwich has been popular with the British upper-class since the Edwardian era? They used coal for the hotbed cucumbers, much like we grow them here."
He shrugged and picked up the nibbled triangle, swallowed it in two bites. He didn't seem very socially stimulated. Perhaps she needed to make more sandwiches. Lily paused, giving Zane a chance to start a new interaction.
Still nothing. She decided to come out and say it. "I'm trying to make conversation."
"All right, fine." He dropped his cup with a clatter. "How are you, dear Lily? What have you done, trapped on this ship all week? Oh, you are just a construct, possibly just a construct of my imagination, so I guess you've done nothing, nothing at all."
That was incorrect. She suspected that he didn't understand what a construct was or at least, not in a philosophical sense. And she'd done quite a bit while he'd climbed up to the kitchen. She'd worked out the odds of them colliding with a foreign object on their current trajectory (0.03%) and the odds of them finding another life-form at their destination (12.47%) and finally the odds of Zane surviving another month on the ship. Sadly, the chances were so close to zero that it really had not been worth calculating.
"I increased the temperature in the cargo bay from 145.25 Kelvin to 145.29 Kelvin as a precaution," she said. "If it gets too cold, there's a risk of bone fractures."
Zane swallowed another sandwich in a single bite and gulped the hot tea without stirring. Lily revised her estimate down by 0.0012 percent.
The endless drone of the hydrogen-scoop engines filled the silence.
"How much longer?" Zane stared at the faded gilding on the cup.
"Well, it's difficult to put into a timescale. It's approximately 6.7 parsecs from South Uist to the Gliese 667C system."
"Where? We're set for Proxima Centuri."
"No, I analysed the data and redirected the ship. It's clear that Gliese 667C is by far the most likely chance of sustaining life if we survive the impact. There's seven planets in the system, three of which are of a good size and within the Goldilocks zone. They are the most likely to have water and to host the lives of our cargo. Well, not yours, of course, you won't make it that far. We still have some time to go." She sliced another piece of bread in half.
"But then why did you take me out of the chamber?"
"Well, someone should be awake, don't you think? It's traditional. The initial journey parameters included a three-man working crew in addition to the settlers in the cargo bay. Sadly the crew had prematurely completed their lifespan by the time we drew near to the Proxima Centuri system." Her blade slashed wetly along a small cucumber leaving a stack of one-millimetre-thick slices in its wake.
"The reserve crew didn't do so well once I diverted, but that didn't cause any long-term issues as we had to recalibrate anyway. The trip to Gliese 667C is a lot further than initially planned but we pull hydrogen for fuel as we go. So you can see that I've had to improvise with passengers to man the ship. You are the eighteenth. You've done well." She paused, searching for the right words.
Slightly below average but much better than the last one." Lily slid the serving plate towards him. "Will you have more tea?"
He shoved the china away from him with a clatter. "I don't want bloody tea."
"It's my fault really," said Lily. She increased the temperature in the room by two degrees in an attempt to make him more comfortable. "I should have realised it would be more difficult for you. Your mother wasn't British. Mary Bernice Parsons emigrated from a small town in Indiana when she was twenty-seven. As her forefathers were British, I thought it wouldn't matter. You probably just don't have the right kinds of cultural connection to the ceremonies of your people." She scanned as she spoke. "In the United States, they don't have the same kind of tea ritualisation. In fact, they erroneously refer to high tea when speaking about afternoon tea, in the belief that high means higher status. The phrase high tea, however, is the evening meal as eaten by the lower classes and would normally include a meat dish. The 'high' in high tea refers to the fact that it is eaten later in the day." She closed the database and looked at Zane. "At least you have been good enough to come and have tea with me."
Zane's face was twitching violently on the right side. Lily revised her estimate down to six days.
"How far have we gone? How old am I?"
"About ten light years. You age differently in the cargo bay, so I'm not sure how you could count your age like rings on a tree. We're about halfway there." She saw his face and took pity. "More than halfway. Enough time for another cup of tea."
"No," said Zane. "I can't do this anymore. I'm trapped on a spaceship going nowhere with an AI who thinks that making cucumber sandwiches will keep me sane."
He threw himself down the hatch, his feet clanging against metal rungs as he raced to the lower deck.
"See you next week!" She kept her voice bubbly and full of happiness, hopeful that it would be contagious. She discarded the extra sandwiches and crusts into the grinder to pass through to the garden for composting. If only she could grow properly green cucumbers, she was sure that would bring her passengers solace.
The lower sensors lit up as Zane paced around the small corridors of the ship. Eventually he collapsed into a heap in the flight engineer's rack. Lily unlocked the pharmaceutical cabinet and lit the floor lights leading to it. She watched for a moment and then shut the sensors off and busied herself with the ship's roster.
Only a few days had passed when she turned the sensors back on, but it was too late for Zane.
Lily set up the self-cleansing routine and restored the Mayflower decks to pristine pre-Zane condition. She'd found a new candidate on the roster: Zoe Edward-Hughes was born in Llandudno, Wales in 2037 and joined the Mayflower at age twenty. Lily checked the processes and then set the routine in motion to gently free Zoe from cryonic storage.
Lily measured the precise thickness of the piece of pale white bread and calibrated the blade to slice it exactly in half. She added a scant layer of spread and paper-thin slices of cucumber. Then she carefully trimmed off the crusts and sliced the sandwich diagonally twice into four perfect triangles.
This story originally appeared in Chinese in SF Comet.