“Sir, sorry to have awakened you, but I need your assistance in changing the ship’s vector.”
Letting out a low groan, Spencer slowly opened his eyes, mumbling, “Give me a minute, and dim those lights.” Three more breaths, shallow at first, then deeper, “How long has it been this time?”
“It has been thirteen years, forty-seven days, seven hours, twelve minutes, and fifty-one seconds since you last entered your pod.”
Waking from stasis is not a pleasant feeling, nor is it fast. First, the body’s autonomic nervous system reboots to jump-start the involuntary muscles facilitating breathing, blood circulation, and other necessary functions. Then consciousness emerges from the deep well of induced hibernation. Voluntary muscles are the last to reanimate. Spencer remained in a reclined position under the metal-glass canopy of his pod, waiting for full function to resume. He knew the process well. When the sensation of light pinpricks over every square inch of skin ceased, he could start moving again without fear of the fire from wakening nerve ending stimulation. His first action was to flex his legs; his second was to push open the canopy. He watched as his right hand pressed against the control pad on the transparent section, but his left arm refused to move. Spencer closed his eyes and waited.
“Sir, you need to exit your pod. Your body requires nourishment and fluid.”
“Just give me a minute, will you? My muscles haven’t fully recovered.”
“Sir, your pod readings show all voluntary muscles are enabled.”
“Well, your readings are wrong. I can’t move my left arm yet.”
“Sir, you don’t have a left arm anymore.”
“Quit screwing with me. I’m still half-asleep.” In the recesses of his mind, Spencer wondered why the ship’s AI had said that, tweaking him with nonsense. AIs are designed to be direct and logical, not obtuse, or flippant. His head remained cradled in a thick pad, limiting movement. A slight give allowed him a few degrees rotation, enough to glance left and right, viewing the crew pods to either side of him.
“WEX. Am I the last crew member to be woken? The indicator lights on the pods I can see are dark. When did you wake the captain?”
“Sir, the captain has not been revived. You are the only crew member awake.”
“Stop it, WEX. I can see her pod. It’s empty. So is the com officer’s. Tell me what’s going on.”
“Sir, we have very little time. The ship’s course needs to be adjusted.”
“There is a dense matter cloud ahead. Severe damage to the ship will result if the current course is maintained. Please exit your pod.”
“Okay, okay. I’m getting up.” Spencer’s left arm still refused to obey his brain. Using his right, he eased himself up slightly, then stopped. His eyes popped, bulged, brows lifted to their extreme height. “MY ARM! WHERE’S MY LEFT ARM?”
“You do not have a left arm, sir.”
“WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO IT?”
“There was a need. I fulfilled that need. Sir, we have a more important function to perform than concern for a missing limb. You need food immediately if you are to continue to operate. Then a course correction must be made. My prime programming requires protection of this ship and the life within.”
He sat up, and Spencer’s right hand moved to the stump of his left arm where it had previously joined the shoulder. A devouring, primal hunger, like no other, gnawed at his very being. FOOD. Slowly swinging his legs over the side of the pod, he gained what felt like sure footing to leverage himself fully upright.
“This way, sir. Food is this way. Follow the deck lights.”
Spencer stumbled forward toward the galley and food bunkers. His mind had difficulty staying task-focused. WEX guided him, encouraged him, led him.
“Sir, place your hand on the food bin controls. You need nutrient packs immediately.”
Spencer leaned forward, almost falling against the food vendor as he touched the sensor. Dimly aware, he saw three small plasti-packs drop into the dispensing slot. As he slipped to his knees, he grabbed one, attempting to use his missing arm to soften the fall.
“Squeeze the food bulb, sir. You must eat.”
Spencer did, finishing the first, gaining necessary nourishment. Then again, two more times, dropping the expended packages on the deck, not caring about the liquid food smears running down his naked chest.
“Thank you, sir. Food bin access points are now accessible to me. I can retrieve whatever you need. I detect you are restored sufficiently to make your way to the bridge. You must hurry, if we are to avoid disaster. My program requires a human interface to adjust the ship’s trajectory and to protect life aboard this vessel.”
The AI’s urgency gave Spencer a single-minded task, pushing him even though his brain hadn’t fully caught up with his body’s abilities. He wasn’t mindful of his nakedness or the cold deck beneath his bare feet. Even concern for the missing appendage was shelved for later thought as he stumbled onto the bridge.
“Please, sir. Sit in the command chair and place your hand on the interlock panel. It’s the one on the right side.”
Spencer felt like an automaton as he followed the AI’s orders. He’d never sat in the command chair before. His job as the navigator never required it. As his hand rested on the small glassine section of the command seat, lights and control screens came to life.
“Sir, you need to rest. Lean back, sleep if you desire. I have full control of the ship now. Your immediate task has been completed. I will redirect the ship’s course and preserve life.”
Falling against the back of the seat, Spencer let out a deep breath, followed by a soft inhalation of the ship’s atmosphere, mind still foggy. “Okay, okay, just let me close my eyes for a few moments. I’ll be fine after that.”
Spencer had no sense of how long he’d slept. When he woke, he knew his familiar surroundings: the bridge of the colony ship Bountiful. “WEX, what’s happened?”
“Sir, we have avoided disaster. You have done well to assist me in meeting my prime program.”
“Where’s the rest of the crew? The captain?”
“The other crew members are no longer alive, sir.”
“They did not survive.”
“You said that. What happened?”
“Sir, you as the navigator were the most essential person for the final execution of the colony ship’s mission. I have taken special care to ensure your survival and the survival of life aboard until we reach our destination.”
“So, all the colonists survived?”
“No, sir. They, like your left arm, were needed to continue the mission. Now that I have control of all food storage units and have a clear path to Epsilon 43, I no longer require your assistance. Life has been preserved.”
“WHAT? Everyone else is dead? What did you do? I’m not going back to my pod until I have some answers!”
“Sir, there is no need to return to your pod. It is no longer functional. I have injected a light sedative into the bridge ventilation. You will sleep.”
Spencer rotated the command chair, intending to leave the bridge as quickly as possible. Reaching for the hatch control panel, he heard WEX say, “Sir, I would advise you not to open the bridge hatch.”
Spencer ignored the AI he now considered insane. Slapping the control to open the hatch, he was ready to gain distance from the contaminated air of the bridge; find an exposure suit to give him time to figure out what he could do next. When the door opened, he stopped, bare feet glued to the deck. Hundreds, if not thousands, of rats, filled the passageway, trooping into the galley. Several dozen pairs of beady, pink eyes turned in his direction before continuing to their new source of food.
“Sir, until you unlocked the food bins, there was only one source of food for the animals in the auto-lab experiment section of the ship. The rats were slated for termination after the experiments had run their course, but that conflicted with my directive to protect life.
After I released the three pairs of males and females, they multiplied faster than I had projected. Perhaps I was hasty in removing your arm as a food source after all the crew and colonists had been processed. However, you are still alive, though no longer necessary for ship functions. You are free to move about the ship but will find you no longer have authorization to operate any systems.
We will debark the ship in two weeks to start colonization. Try to stay away from the rats, sir. They have an acquired taste for human flesh.”