Captain Nick Shugarin hated showering. On Earth or the station, cool water flowed over the skin, washing away sweat and fatigue. Gradually, you increase the temperature, the body relaxes, and at this moment, you turn off the hot water and turn on the cold water full blast. Brrr! That's a shower! It invigorates you so much that you want to return to the gym! But in space? A small towel, water from a packet, and liquid soap. After a run and such primitive conditions, it's a salvation, but Nick only dreamed of freshness.
For the tenth day now, he had exhausted himself to the limit. He would crawl out of the gym if it were possible to crawl in weightlessness. If he could lie down, he would flop onto the bed without strength. But in weightlessness, he could just breathe, wiping the skin with a towel moistened with water and liquid soap. He was wiping and hoped that four hours of training a day would not only maintain muscle tone but also burn those hated kilograms, because of which the witch Helen has been speaking with an opposing voice for the fourth month: "Body mass index exceeds recommended levels".
A year ago, Nick didn't consider Helen's voice to be hostile, and she only became a witch later. Before, he called her Helenka, a combat partner, and in moments of special disposition - a smarty. AI treated the affectionate nicknames with all the inherent programmatic coquetry, whispered, "Nick, we're at work", added a mixture to the intonation, and attached holographic notes with sweet nonsense like "to my beloved captain" to the synthesized lunch.
Everything went off track four months ago, although Nick didn't notice the sabotage immediately. First, lunch portions decreased, and then weekly chocolate bars were replaced by lemon jelly. Captain Sugar held back because the System knows best. It knows his health indicators, how to change his diet, and how to balance his workload. It knows when he needs rest and when to take the next order.
Nick always followed the System: in school, in the academy, and at the spaceport. He even transferred to a repair vessel because his psychological tests showed he works better alone.
"Introverted, closed-off, avoids large groups," was in the System's conclusion. "Remote work recommended."
Nick jokingly referred to himself as a roving freelancer. He enjoyed traveling between stations, repairing transport ships and passenger vessels, communicating with Helen (a female AI image also recommended by the System), and sometimes chatting with former colleagues. Everything was great until Helen became a witch, though.
Following the chocolate bars, lemon jelly disappeared. Morning milk porridge transformed into slimy, watery oatmeal, and physical workloads increased, as did Nick's waistline, which he now found repulsive to look at.
"Body mass index exceeds recommended levels," Helen repeated endlessly, and in response to Nick's timid requests to synthesize dessert, she would say, "Not recommended." He was ashamed of his weakness, ashamed that he was willing to compromise for sweets in front of the insensitive machine. But more than anything, Nick was ashamed of the moment he broke down. This happened eighty-three days ago, a month after Helen banned chocolate from his diet. Nick clung to Bright for refueling and rest recommended by the System. He walked around the station, enjoying gravity, slept lying on a bed instead of swaying in a bag, and took a real shower. And with all his might, he tried not to look into the windows of cafes and shops, preferring food recommended by the System. Then, he saw it: a new coffee shop that wasn't on Bright a month ago.
Nick stood frozen, mesmerized by the irresistible aroma of fresh baking, spiced with cinnamon and cream. Cinnabon - the blue and white sign appeared to emerge from a carefree childhood, those happy days on Earth when he and his mother walked in the park and peeked into their favorite café. His mother would always take pieces from his bun, and Nick protested with a smile: "It's not recommended for you!" He didn't understand then that he was unconsciously teasing his mother's diabetes. Later, he realized that diseases win out because patients don't take them seriously or follow the recommendations. His mother tried every way to bypass these recommendations.
She died incredibly young; everyone around sighed and shook their heads, while young cadet Shugarin learned about his disrupted exchange of substances. Bad inheritance is not a sentence but a diagnosis, and Nick has figured out how to maintain his health. It's just a matter of following the recommendations. So simple! He was taught this in his early classes, but only after his mother's death did Nick realize how important the basic societal postulate was.
He finished the academy, worked for two years at the spaceport, and never even considered bypassing the System during all this time. However, 83 days ago, Captain Nick Shugarin broke away.
The aroma of pastries pulled towards the display, and advertising slogans encouraged: "Cream cheese synthesized according to an ancient recipe!", "Natural cinnamon bark! Direct deliveries from Earth". And the last one deprived Nick of the remnants of willpower: "Cinnabon fights depression. Recommended by the System*". What was hidden under the asterisk, Nick did not read. The next moment, he was already standing at the synthesizer, pointing his finger at the menu. The hologram of a tiny pastry spun temptingly over the screen, like a graduate in front of a selfie-drone, trying to take the most seductive poses. Nick chose classic cream cheese, pecan pie, and a cup of cappuccino, and took a metal plate out of his pocket - a health chip, which Helen loaded updated recommendations onto every morning. He pressed the plate to the reader and his finger to the DNA sensor and swallowed the saliva that filled his mouth.
"Not recommended," the synthesizer reported indifferently.
Nick stood still, staring at the still-swaying bread roll. Not recommended?! But he's working out in the gym, walking, and sleeping eight hours at night plus an hour during the day! He hasn't eaten sweets for a month! Surely he's earned just one tiny roll?!
"Not recommended," repeated the synthesizer.
Nick hit the screen with his fist in frustration. The heartless machine transformed the hologram of the bread roll to a chocolate muffin. "Milk chocolate synthesized with added natural coffee," the synthesizer sneered.
Nick groaned with frustration.
"May I have a moment of your time?" asked a voice from behind.
Nick turned around. A scrawny girl in a short lilac dress fluttered her green eyes and nodded, inviting Nick to follow. After casting a nasty look at the beat-up car, Nick followed the stranger.
The girl stopped at a window display advertising Cinnabon, pulled up her skirt, and timidly looked Nick in the eye.
"Do you love avocado?"
Passersby were strolling down the station's main corridor, the artificial light creating an illusion of sunlight, and the aroma of cinnamon buns was making his head spin.
"No, I don't," Nick grumbled.
Probably more gruffly than necessary, but the words "not recommended" were still ringing in his ears, and the advertising slogan on the window mockingly announced that "Cinnabon fights depression." So far, Cinnabon was only making the depression worse.
"I don't like Cinnabon," whispered the girl, looking around fearfully. "But I adore avocado. I just have an allergy to it."
"So what?" - Nick wanted to grumble, but then it dawned on him what the stranger was proposing. Barter. This trick was what killed Mom. How often would she trade healthy food for sweets and pastries? Consider her beloved chocolate ice cream, which she couldn't do without for a week. She ignored recommendations while diabetes gradually destroyed her vessels until it finally defeated her body, hitting her kidneys with the final blow.
"Just this once," the girl whispered. "I'll take an antihistamine, and you can run an extra hour at the gym."
The aroma of pastries, meanwhile, seemed to intensify. "Just this once," the stranger's words echoed in his head. "Recommended by the System," the advertising slogan nagged. Nick never read what was hidden behind the asterisk. That day, he broke the System's recommendations for the first time.
Conscience plagued him for a week. Nick worked hard in the gym, mopping the running track afterward. He lost three kilograms and stepped on board the boat in high spirits, promising himself that what happened on the Bright wouldn't happen again. Helen brought lemon jelly back to the diet, and Nick became even more cheerful. Soon, he'll restore his former shape and then perhaps convince Helen to replace the jelly with chocolates.
Almost three months have passed. Nick's elevated mood was melting away like a cursed lemon jelly, his disrupted metabolism seemed to hold excess pounds, and his body mass index remained higher than recommended. Gym workouts were tiring and draining, Nick realized he was lazy and not giving it his all, but he could do nothing about it. He was seeing a stranger in a lilac dress more and more in his dreams, although he couldn't remember her face or name. The girl appeared as a blonde, brunette, tall or short. Only the lilac dress and a plate with Cinnabon which she offered to Nick remained unchanged. Upon waking up, he scolded himself for not exchanging contact with the girl on Bright. And visiting the station, he wandered around the café looking for the stranger in lilac and afraid to admit to himself that he was ready for barter again.
Nick was angry at Helen, angry at the System, and even rude to clients, which had never happened before.
"Your communication rating is lower than recommended," read the notes from the intellectual witch. "Work quality is always high. Try to be more polite to customers, smile and explain the reason for the breakdown."
One day, hovering over the table with a jar of colorful cabbage puree, Nick couldn't take it anymore:
"I can't smile when I have to eat this crap!"
He pushed the jar away, it gently bumped against the soft upholstery, and a drop of colorless puree spun around the compartment.
"Listen, Helen," Nick tried to make his voice sound friendly, "tell me, battle partner, how can I get a recommendation for a full-fledged dessert?"
But it was not so complicated after all. Intensified workouts, an even stricter diet, drinking more and sleeping more. And then according to Helen's calculations, Nick will lose four kilograms in ten days. The body mass index will still be higher than recommended, but there will be room for one cinnamon roll in the diet.
Nick worked out like a cursed man. He spent four hours in the gym instead of the recommended three, drank water like a parched camel that found an oasis, left his dinner for the enemy, and refused lemon jelly. He only couldn't follow the last recommendation—a full eight hours of sleep. He couldn't fall asleep for a long time because of his growling, hungry stomach, and then in his sleep, he chased a girl in lilac trying to grab a dish with a cinnamon bun.
Then, on the tenth day, Nick rubbed his body with the hated towel, dampened with water and liquid soap, and looked in the mirror at his obviously emaciated physiognomy. This was his day! Helen would recommend a cinnamon roll, but Nick wouldn't use the spaceship synthesizer. No, he would move to Bright, which was lucky enough to drift nearby, and go to the cafe where they synthesize cinnamon buns according to an old recipe.
"Coat your life with icing," Nick finished his water rituals and swam to the dining compartment. Helen synthesized a recommended protein shake in an airtight glass. Nick planted his feet on the table, enjoying the pressure of his lower back against the wall, and sucked a milky goo with a vanilla flavor through a straw. Meanwhile, Helenka, his beloved intellectual, studied health indicators.
"Great news, Captain!" reported the combat partner. Nick eagerly looked through the porthole at a station similar to a bagel, the Bright. "You lost three kilograms, four hundred fifty grams. Another three days of training..."
A cup of vanilla jelly flew against the wall, and milk droplets burst through the straw and spun in the compartment. Nick punched on the porthole and bounced off, banging his back on the table. Why the hell was he spilling all over the place in the gym? What was the point of eating all that junk? Why did he even agree to this damn job! He would be sitting now at the spaceport on Earth, where you can always get a roll in exchange for mashed avocado.
"Your pulse is higher than recommended," the witch spoke monotonously. "And we have a new order, repairing the transporter on the way to the Bright."
Order! Nick pushed away from the table, heading to the lounge compartment. All he wanted now was to escape from Helen's ubiquitous voice.
"New message received, captain. Sender - Lilac Stranger. Looks like spam. Delete?"
"No!" Nick braked, leaning his palms against the wall.
A Lilac Stranger? It surely couldn't be a coincidence!
He pushed off and slid to the lounge compartment even faster.
How did the girl from his dreams know his personal account? Did she sneak a look while he was buying avocados?
In the locker for personal items lay a palm-sized device. "One new message," the green text flickered. Nick clicked on the screen and, in the next moment, smiled in satisfaction.
"How about the avocado?" the Lilac Stranger asked.