There was but one man on board. He floated, motionless, in a shallow pool that curved in the center of one compartment. His eyes opened. Blue. Incurious, like a newly born child.
Some time passed.
A valve activated, and the liquid drained out of the pool. One side dropped away. The man sat up and lowered his legs to the deck, moving slowly and carefully like an invalid testing himself after a long time bedridden.
The deck was warm.
He might have sat there for a moment, an hour, or a day before a voice spoke. It came from everywhere.
"There is food and drink in the next chamber."
Obediently the man pushed himself to his feet. He swayed, then recovered. On a low stand beside the pool/ bed was a blue coverall. He glanced at it briefly, then walked to a wall. It was smooth and blank except for a circular palmswitch.
He touched the switch.
The wall became a screen. Vid? Imaging radar? Computer simulation?
Outside lay space/not space. It was black, and it was all colors. It hurt the man's eyes. He palmed the switch once more, and the screen became a wall.
Still naked, he padded through a doorway.
A table was set for one. The dishes were covered. The man lifted one cover and scooped food up with his fingers. He chewed, then swallowed. His expression was still unchanged.
He wiped his fingers on his thigh and walked into another compartment, where he saw a reclining chair with a steel-gleaming helmet on it. Odd tendrils curled from the helmet.
The man sat down and put the helmet on.
There were other people in the room. No. He was outside. He was wearing clothing—some kind of uniform. The other people were all smiling and laughing and trying to touch him. He let them. He heard himself saying words he did not yet understand.
He noted one person amid the throng. He had a very pale face, and his eyes gleamed. The pale-faced man stretched out his hand to shake. Suddenly he drew something metal-shining from his clothing.
The man felt blows in his stomach. Felt himself falling backward. Felt pain. Pain rising until... until...
The man took off the helmet. He was back in the compartment, back in the reclining chair.
The voice spoke again. "E-time since deactivation: six years, three months, two days."
The man's expression changed slightly. A thought drifted through his mind: Wrong. Five years late. Then the thought was discarded as meaningless. What was "late?"
"You have ten ship-days before departure."
The man nodded once. He returned to the mess compartment. He was hungry again.
THE MAN STARED at the screen. His hands remained folded in his lap.
"You have not begun the test," the Voice—for he had begun to capitalize it in his mind—accused.
"What happens if I fail to obey?"
"Information will not be provided. Begin the test."
"I shall not."
"Do you have a reason?"
"I have already taken it. Three—no, four sleep periods ago."
"That is correct. Test complete."
The screen blanked.
"All test results have been assimilated. Subject determined within acceptable parameters," the Voice said.
Very odd. It was the first time It had spoken as if to someone other than the man.
"You are ready for the next stage," It told him.
"I have some questions."
"You may ask. Answers may or may not be provided."
"I am on a ship. Is there anyone else on board?"
"You are a synthesized voice?"
"You said moments ago that I was... within acceptable parameters. What would have happened were I not?"
"Answer determined not to be in your best interests."
"I shall try another way. What constraints did your programmer limit you to?"
"Answers determined not to be in your best interests."
"Thank you. You answered, however. Another question. Who programmed you?"
Silence except for ship hum.
"Answer will become self-evident within a short period of time," the Voice said finally. "Those are questions enough."
A previously sealed panel opened.
"You will enter that passage. At its end will be a ship. You will board and prepare yourself for takeoff. You may issue two orders, if you feel you know the answers. If you do not, recommendations will be offered.
"First. Should the machines be reactivated?"
"The recommendation is that they should—given recent circumstances."
"Recommendation accepted. I guess."
"Second. Should transshipment begin? The recommendation is it should not until you progress further."
"Accepted. Transshipment of what? And whatever it is, how do I communicate with you?"
"Both answers will become self-evident. Proceed to the ship now."
The man walked down the passageway. At the end, as promised, was the entryway to a small ship. He entered.
Again, the ship was constructed for one person.
He seated himself in a reclining couch. Behind him, the hatch slid shut. He felt motion: stardrive.
"This is a final communication," the Voice said suddenly. "There are four separate automated navigation systems on this ship. Each of them is preset for a different destination. On reaching each destination that system will self-destruct and the next system will activate.
"Do not be alarmed.
"Do not attempt to interfere with this system.
"Your final destination and debarkation point will be obvious.
"Good-bye. Good luck."
The man jolted. The fine hair at the back of his neck lifted.
Good luck? From a machine?
Sten debuta # 1 en español! Narrada en cuatro partes, Episode Dos ahora aparece en la revista Diaspar, la mejor revista de SF & F en América del Sur!
Y es gratis! Aquí está el enlace.
EMPIRE DAY 2012 - A COMMEMORATIVE EDITION
And, did I mention, Alex Kilgour's Worst Joke Ever?