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Goat Milk Cheese, Three Trillion Miles From Earth

Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold, cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Lightspeed, Asimov's, and Clarkesworld, among other places (such as Daily Science Fiction, of course). For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

Eljay went to the goat enclosure with two plastic jugs and a resource acquisition ticket. Four hundred goats lived in the colony ship's livestock bay, sharing space with the three sheep that had survived the visna-maedi epidemic. All three sheep were male. The geneticists that could have restored the flock had transcended and no longer cared about such mundane things as wool and meat and milk.
"You there, Divi?" Eljay called from the corridor. The livestock bay stank of stale urine and dry grass. Divi was too focused on her studies to spend much time cleaning. Her only goal was to abandon her body and join the mindnet.
Two goats approached, drawn by his voice. One looked healthy, but the other dragged itself around using only its forelegs. Another case of Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis, CAE. Eljay shook his head. If somebody didn't do something soon, the ship would lose its last source of animal milk. The two goats put their heads together and bleated quietly, as though they were having a conversation.
Divi brought two gallons of milk. "This is incredibly inefficient. The ship makes synthetic milk."
"Synthetic milk makes terrible cheese." He traded his empty jugs for the full ones. Seeing Divi made his heart hurt. She reminded him of his daughter. The same brown eyes, the same curly hair, the same distant expression of someone who dreamed of transcending.
Eljay poured the milk into a stainless steel pot. It was so fresh that it needed to cool before he started making chevre.
His chessboard indicated that it was his turn. His daughter, Mariada, could evaluate five million moves per second. He couldn't, so it was pretty much always his turn. His fifth move completed the Najdorf Variation of the Sicilian Defense, and his daughter countered with the Adams Attack. He didn't remember how to defend against that.
He checked the temperature of the milk.
"The goats are sick," he said. The milk had cooled, so he added the culture. "There are hardly any humans left to tend them, much less heal a diseased tribe."
Mariada could hear him anywhere on the ship, so he often spoke to her this way. He finished stirring the culture into the milk and realized that Mariada hadn't responded. The silence worried him. The mindnet was restless, and he suspected they were planning to leave. "Mariada?"
"I'm running simulations to solve your problem," Mariada answered, her voice coming over the nearest ship speaker. "Also, it has been your turn at chess for 287 seconds."
The milk had to coagulate for several hours, so he returned to the chess game. Despite his best efforts, Mariada won. Eljay remembered teaching her how to play chess, back when she was six. She'd been reading old Earth fairy tales, and had insisted that because the king and queen were married, their pieces ought to move together. He missed those fleeting childhood moments. It was lonely on the ship, with all the younger generations transcended. Worst of all was the thought that by the time the ship reached its destination, it would almost certainly be empty.
He cleared away the pieces and went to bed.
In the morning, Eljay drained the whey from the curds. He added salt and finely chopped thyme. He took the finished chevre to Yol. She used her wheat ration to make beer, which paired nicely with the goat cheese. They reminisced about their childhood, running around on a thriving colony ship.
"Won't be able to do this much longer," Eljay said, sipping his beer. "The goats are sick."
Yol smiled sadly. "I'll miss the cheese, but I'll trade my beer for your company. You ask Mariada to fix the goats?"
"She said she'd work on it." Eljay frowned. It had been several hours since he'd asked, and still no answer. He finished his beer and left feeling depressed about the goats, and his daughter, and what the future held for the passengers that didn't transcend.
Back in his quarters, a fresh chessboard was waiting for his first move. He tipped his king onto its side. No more endless losing. Mariada had moved on. He would move on, too.
Eljay printed a resource acquisition ticket.
"Dad," Mariada's voice came over the speaker. She rarely initiated conversations, and she never called him dad.
"You're going, aren't you?" he asked. "Somewhere where I can't talk to you."
"Yes. The ship is slow. Three trillion miles has taken centuries. There are faster ways to travel," Mariada said. "But I solved your problem with the goats."
"Thanks, Mariada," he said. "I hope that whatever you become, it makes you happy."
"Goodbye, Dad."
She was gone.
Eljay went to the livestock bay. Divi wasn't there, perhaps she'd transcended. Several goats approached. His daughter had healed them. The one he'd seen last week, dragging its useless hind legs, trotted over. It bleated several times, and a translation came from the nearest ship speaker, "Greetings! We take care of our own tribe now, with help from the ship to acquisition what we need."
The goat glanced at Eljay's acquisition ticket and pawed at the metal floor, making an awful screeching sound.
Eljay stared at the goats. "I got the ticket before I knew you'd become... passengers. I won't acquisition your milk, but maybe there's something I can trade?"
"What do you have that the ship doesn't provide?" the goat asked, curious.
"I have a friend who makes some pretty amazing beer."
Mariada's solution was a good one. The goats could take care of themselves, and maybe learn to do some of the other things around the ship. They might even turn out to be good company, and ease the loss of the younger generations.
His daughter was gone, so far beyond him that he couldn't even lose to her at chess, even if he wanted to. He wondered if the goats would learn to play. He hoped so.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

Author Comments

Several months ago, I decided to write a series of flash stories for Daily Science Fiction. This proved to be more difficult than I expected--my first few attempts to write multiple flashes on the same theme collapsed into single (multi-part) short stories. (If anyone is curious, my first "failed" attempt at a series of flash, "Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion," is available to read in the August 2014 issue of Clarkesworld.)

For DSF, I wanted the individual stories to stand completely on their own, rather than being fundamentally interrelated. When I got the idea to do a tasting menu, I started by writing one fantasy story and one science fiction story, to make absolutely sure I ended up with a series instead of a single story.

To read the other stories in this Tasting Menu series so far published: dailysciencefiction.com/hither-and-yon/tasting-menu.

- Caroline M Yoachim
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