Jordan moved through the cafeteria line, sliding his tray along the smooth synthetic surface, only slowing as the android on the other side of the serving bar scooped him a mass of brownish gray that landed with a slick “plop” on his tray. He frowned as he looked at it.
“What is this sh!t?” he asked, looking through his lashes at the expressionless droid.
“Seventy-five percent protein, two percent-” the droid began in a asexual , almost monotone voice.
“Made out of what?” Jordan interrupted. “Anything alive?”
“All protein comes from something that was once living,” the droid replied. Its face was like a mask that had been worn and traded one too many times. Locals had long since stopped drawing moustaches and eyebrows on the droid, but the evidence was still there, like a newly erased chalkboard after a day at school.
“What happened to the chicken?” Jordan poked at the protein mass with his spoon and recoiled as it bounced back into shape.
“You said you were tired of chicken yesterday,” a female voice said behind him.
He turned to look directly into two greenish brown eyes and felt as if he’d been struck in the gut. He watchedo red lips beneath an average nose press together and a little thrill went up his spine. A dark, untrimmed brow raised over one eye and he swallowed. He opened his mouth to say something intelligent in reply to her sharp look, but all that came out was “Whaa… who?”
“I was here,” she replied, as if he had asked an actual question. “You said you were sick of chicken. The droid doubtless calculated that into your meal plan and found you something compatible that wasn’t chicken.” The corner of her mouth quirked. “It probably doesn’t even taste like chicken…”
Jordan felt stupefied. Not stupefied in any way that might be reasonable or logical. The part of his ego that hated anything illogical started to screech inside his head. You’re acting like an idiot.
He tried to recall where he had seen the woman before. He had to have seen her before. It was a scientific research colony on Mars. It wasn’t like it was some densely populated city on Earth or even a space station filled with rotating populations. These were people who were stuck on the planet with him for months and would doubtless be stuck on Mars for their entire life.
They were all volunteers in the name of science. There were only a few dozen of them there but he was certain he would have remembered her if he saw her before. She had copper brown hair, an athletes body, and was almost a full foot shorter than he was. She looked up at him as if she’d p’wned him in a retro rpg. Her white polo shirt had the green leaf logo of the Botanical Department.
Assuming she was a botanist seemed as logical as he could manage at the moment. Unable to think of anything smart to say, the next sentence out of his mouth was: “What plant gives out the most oxygen?”
She laughed and he shivered at the sound of it. “On Earth, in space or on Mars?”
He blushed. He could feel the red flush creep up from the colar of his shirt to cover his cheeks until his scalp tingled. He resisted the urge to touch his hair, his mind instantly on his thinning hairline. “On Mars, of course,” he said, and tried to smile.
“There’s no way to know the answer to that yet,” she said and smiled brighter, but more crookedly. “There are theories, of course…”
Her crooked smile made him feel more stupid, but at least he was smiling back. His eyes started to wander down to her lips again, then her neck and they stuck on the cross laying on her creamy mocha with extra cream colored skin. He frowned. “You’re a Christian?” he asked before he could stop himself to think on what he was saying.
Her smile broke and she pulled back slightly. “Yes.” She nodded. “Yes I am.”
It was at this time that logical part of his mind took over, and suppressed, the superseded feeling side of himself started screeching warnings in the back of his head. His mouth kept moving. “You’re a scientist AND a Christian?”
She took a breath, the mischievous sparkle in her eye disappearing. “And a woman.” She smiled, but the mirth was completely gone from her face. “Isn’t that amazing?” She pushed past him, separating him for a moment from his tray.
He looked down at it for a moment, but he couldn’t think why. He didn’t look back up for a good minute, suddenly blank — each part of his mind as quiet as the Martian Desert, and feeling just as cold. He looked for the woman he had been talking to. She was walking away from the counter, into the cafeteria. It didn’t look like she was going to sit down and he wondered if he should stop her, invite her to sit with him, apologize, try to make more conversation, or just give up and brood.
“Hey, Jordan,” a familiar voice said behind him.
Jordan jumped slightly and turned to see his colleague, Mark Dawson, the round faced geophysicist that he shared living quarters with.
“Oh. Hi, Mark.” HIs voice was flat and joyless.
Jordan looked to the woman leaving the cafeteria again, watching her copper hair bounce softly on her shoulders.
“What’s up?” Mark asked.
Jordan looked back at Mark and then to his tray and the protein slop in the middle of it. “I’m an idiot.”
“You just discovered it?” Mark laughed. “I could have told you that months ago and saved you all the time and effort of introspection.”