Jay Francis stretched out on the bunk and made himself comfortable. He reached down with his right hand and pressed the button on the side of the bunk. The rest was automatic.
The door to the chamber slid shut. Straps slipped over his arms, legs, and body, and then tightened. The temperature within the airtight chamber began to fall. He felt sensors searching for the vein in his forearm, then felt a slight sting as the needle was inserted. The computer announced that the IV was activated and administering hypnotol. The drug, combined with the sub-zero temperature, would preserve his body for ages.
The computer would monitor his bodily functions and maintain the correct temperature in the chamber to assure that he would remain in a frozen state of hibernation for the next five hundred years--time enough for The Solarwind to reach Alpha Centauri.
Jay was feeling drowsy now; the hypnotol was starting to work. His thoughts wandered to his passenger, Calvin Youngblood in the other chamber. Calvin was the son of Walter Youngblood, multibillionaire and owner of The Solarwind. Jay marveled at how Calvin had manipulated his father into funding this voyage--a voyage of which the elder Youngblood would never know the outcome.
But Jay felt he had been manipulated as well. Calvin had talked him into leaving a secure position as an astronaut with Asteroid Mining Company to pilot The Solarwind to Alpha Centauri to investigate a newly discovered planet there--named Diana-- that astronomers believed would support life. Calvin was convinced that overcrowded Earth must spread out to the stars.
That was Jay’s last thought before drifting off into blissful darkness.
When he awoke, his first thought was that the drug hadn’t worked. But the computer told him differently. "Your hibernation period has ended. Vitachal is being administered through the IV to restore vitality to your system. Please do not move while the Vitachal is being administered."
He lay still as he felt a prickling sensation over his entire body for the next few minutes.
"You may move now," the computer told him. "Please arise very slowly. Perform light exercise phase one..." The computer continued to spell out instructions that he knew by heart.
He stepped out of the chamber. He glanced at the other chamber, but there was no sign of Calvin. While waiting for Calvin to emerge, Jay--still wobbly--went to the galley for a bowl of the prescribed broth.
When he returned to the chambers, there was still no sign of Calvin. Now he was concerned. Calvin should have awakened by now.
He hurried--as fast as he dared move--to the control cabin. He sat down at the master controls and keyed the mike. "Request status report on Calvin Youngblood in hibernation chamber number one."
"Calvin Youngblood expired on the twentieth day of the seven hundredth year of the voyage. Death was due to an undetected defect in chamber number one. Do you wish a full report?"
"No report desired at this time." Jay was shocked at the news of Calvin’s death, but he could not accept that Calvin had died during the seven hundredth year--the voyage ended at five hundred years, as scheduled--the time it would take to reach Diana. But he glanced at the ship’s chronometer and received another shock, for it read one thousand years. He made another inquiry of the computer, to which it responded:
"A hibernation period of one thousand years was programmed. You were awakened at the end of that time."
Either a terrible human error or a terrible computer glitch had occurred. In any case, Jay was facing another thousand year journey, making a total of two thousand years away from Earth.
The computer assured him that sufficient drugs and fuel remained for the return journey. He jettisoned the body of Calvin and prepared for the return trip.
He awoke with a start. He struggled against the straps until he remembered where he was. The computer cautioned him to cease movement until the vitachal was administered.
After performing his exercise routines and drinking his broth, he proceeded to the control cabin. The computer informed him that The Solarwind was now in orbit around Earth. He made several attempts to contact Earth, but received no response.
It was strange, he thought, that there had been no response to his attempts to communicate. It was strange, too, that his approach to Earth had not been intercepted. It was now the forty-second century on Earth, and an ancient ship like The Solarwind should be attracting attention. But there was not a shadow of activity.
Fearing that the computer might have mistakenly taken him to another world, he checked the monitor showing an image of the planet below, then zoomed in for a closer look. The Florida peninsula lay below him, most of it visible through the sparse cloud cover. He breathed a sigh of relief; this was Earth.
He left The Solarwind in orbit and descended to Earth in the AGS, antigrav shuttlecar. He found a suitable stretch of beach on the Florida coast and landed the AGS.
He stepped out of the shuttlecar, stretched, and took a deep breath of the invigorating salt air. There was no sign of activity anywhere or no sound except the ceaseless roar of the surf crashing on the shore.
Obeying a hunch, he stepped into the AGS and pulled out a laser pulser, checking to make sure that the weapon held a full charge. He strapped on a pistol belt containing more charges, holstered the pulser, and set out along the beach.
He was not yet up to full strength, and after thirty minutes of walking he stopped to rest. After a short rest, he couldn’t resist pulling off his boots and wading in the surf.
He chuckled to himself, "After two millennia, I deserve a little pleasure." He’d waded out to knee-deep water when he abruptly stopped. Something was moving out in front of him.
It seemed to be a large snake, or perhaps an eel. He started backing away as he saw it coming straight toward him. As it drew closer, he could see that it was a tentacle, and he looked out to see its owner rising out of the water: a huge octopus-like creature.
He turned to run toward the beach, but even as he turned, he felt something coil around his ankle. In the next instant he was sputtering and gulping water as the tentacle pulled him through the surf. Abruptly, he was lifted from the water and found himself dangling like a rag doll as the creature pulled him toward its huge maw.
He struggled to reach the pulser on his hip, hoping that the weapon hadn’t shaken out of the holster. But he was being tossed around so violently that he couldn’t find the handle. He was near total exhaustion now, and found it an ordeal just to grope for the pulser.
He was but a few feet from the creature’s maw when his hand found and drew the weapon. His finger tightened on the trigger, and he fired wildly at the creature, hoping that he would hit a vital spot. He felt the charge in the pulser empty just as the coil around his ankle relaxed. He fell in the water and managed to holster the weapon before swimming away from the thrashing monster.
He made it to shore on adrenaline and the help of a large swell pushing him toward shore. He lay on the beach face down, utterly exhausted and gasping for breath. He did not know how much time had passed before he managed to struggle to his feet. He examined his body, and although he was sore all over, he found no wounds.
He donned his boots, reloaded his pulser, and continued his trek along the beach. He grew more and more troubled as he plodded along, for he saw not the slightest sign of another human being. Other than the monster he’d encountered, the only sign of life he’d seen was a lone coyote. That meant there were smaller creatures around like rats and rabbits, the coyote’s natural prey.
But where were the humans? Had he somehow gone back in time during his journey through space? Was the tentacled creature some kind of prehistoric monster, long extinct in his own time? But there was the coyote; it didn’t exist in prehistoric times. More likely, he thought, he was in the year 4102, two thousand years after leaving Earth in The Solarwind. But after his departure, something terrible must have happened on Earth. He headed back to the AGS. He would set out for Atlanta; maybe he’d find something there to give him a clue as to what happened.
Atlanta was in ruins. Most buildings were huge piles of rubble, some overgrown with brush and vines. He set the AGS down outside the ruins and made his way through the rubble, seeking any signs of human life. He found nothing but rats, cockroaches, and another lone coyote. Had the human race disappeared from the face of the earth?
His peripheral vision caught a movement to his left. He turned his head to see a figure about a city block away, moving toward him. Apparently seeing Jay at the same time, the figure jumped behind a rubble pile.
Jay spread his arms, empty palms forward. "Hello! I mean you no harm."
The figure popped up and fired a beamer at him. He felt a sting as the beam grazed his left shoulder. He ducked around the corner of a building.
"You cannot deceive me, android." The voice sounded metallic, as if coming from a speaker.
The building was small, but one of the few left intact. Jay found a door and entered, hoping that the structure didn’t choose this moment to come crashing down. He pulled his shirt down to expose his left shoulder. The wound was minor. There was no blood; the beamer had instantly cauterized the wound. But it was still painful.
He found the stairway still intact and climbed to the second floor. He drew his pulser and ran to a window, hoping to spot his assailant below. What he saw standing directly below the window was a robot. He drew his head back in.
A robot! And it appeared to be sentient. He recalled that the robot had called him an android. Did sentient robots and androids exist in these times, capable of reasoning and acting on their own?
He heard voices coming from below. He peeked out again to discover six robots standing below the window. He had no trouble hearing the loud, monotone voices.
"It is not logical. An android would not dare to come to this part of town alone."
"Logical or not, I saw it with my own sensors. It wore odd looking garments and tried to deceive me. It seems to have disappeared, but it can only be in this building."
"Very well, we shall search the building. Zeta-One-Five shall guard the front exit, and Delta-Nine shall guard the rear. The rest of us will enter the building and search. If the android is spotted, it must be destroyed on sight."
He was trapped. This was a small two-story building with only two exits; they wouldn’t be long in finding him. And they meant to kill him on sight. They thought him an android, and there must be something going on between robots and androids. But there was no time to dwell on that; he had to find a way to escape.
He went to the window, a drop of over twenty feet. About six feet away from the window was a high pile of rubble only a few feet below the level of the window. His best chance, he figured, would be to land on the rubble. There was no other choice but a drop of twenty feet.
He crawled into the window, crouched, and pushed off with his legs. He landed on top of the rubble, but his feet slipped and he tumbled down the side of the pile. His wounded shoulder struck a jagged chunk of concrete. He felt pain as the tender wound ripped open.
He heard footsteps as he struggled to his feet, and saw that the robots were almost upon him. He drew his pulser; at least he would go down fighting.
"Stop! Do not harm him," one of the robots shouted. "He is human. He is bleeding."
"Yes," said another, "robotic law demands that we help him."
Jay recalled that a twentieth century scientist proposed the robotic law even before the first robot was designed. The law would be permanently programmed into all robot’s circuits. The gist of the law was that robots must serve, obey, and help humans in every way possible.
As the robots came to his aid, one of them went haywire. It fell to the ground, kicking and flailing its arms. Smoke curled up from the robot, and after a few moments it was still.
"Beta-Four-Two fired the beamer that caused your shoulder injury," a robot told him. "Its circuitry could not stand the shock of learning that you are human."
The robots led him to a building where other robots were gathered. Some were dismantled while other robots performed maintenance on them, some were repairing weapons, and others were simply idle, doing nothing.
One of the robots was a medical tech, and Jay was amazed when it produced a container from within its body and sprayed his shoulder wound. The spray felt soothing, and within moments it solidified into a thin bandage.
"The bandage contains pain killers and antibiotics," the tech told him. "As the wound heals, the bandage will fall away."
A robot classified as a domestic prepared a stew of meat and plants. He did not want to ask what the ingredients were, but the stew was savory--and his first real food in two thousand years. He was beginning to feel better.
"I have been away from Earth for a long time," Jay told the robots. "I want to ask you some questions."
A robot with DZ-8 on its breastplate stepped forward. I am Delta Zulu Eight, leader of this group. I will answer your questions," it said in its metallic voice. "Humans find it easy to simply call me Dizzy."
"First, I’d like to know what happened to all the people on Earth, Dizzy. Where are they?"
"Twelve hundred years ago," Dizzy began, "people learned that a giant comet was on course for Earth. All attempts to stop the comet failed. While there was still time before it hit, many people fled to Diana."
Diana! That meant the planet that he and Calvin intended to explore was indeed habitable. He continued to question Dizzy.
From the robot he learned that the colonization of Diana had already started a half century before the comet was discovered. Hibernation, used in Jay’s time, was no longer needed to travel to Diana. A space-time warp field, or wormhole, between Sol and Alpha Centauri was discovered, and by shooting through the wormhole, the journey could be made in months. Most people went to Diana, but a few went to Mars, where a dozen terradomes had been constructed around an underground Martian lake.
"I was one of the robots used in the construction of the terradomes on Mars," said Dizzy.
"Did anyone remain behind?" Jay asked.
"Many remained. There were some who could not escape in time, some remained by choice, and some simply refused to believe that Earth would be hit. I do not know if any of them survived. The destruction was great, but I do not believe that it was as great as predicted. A few animals survived."
"Has anyone from Mars or Diana ever returned to see what happened?"
"None. The wormhole between Earth and Diana has probably disappeared. Wormholes are fairly common in space, but are short-lived. The one to Diana was shrinking at a rapid rate. Those who fled to Diana are there to stay."
"What of the Mars colony?"
"We have heard nothing from them."
"What of the robots and androids?"
"None were taken. The ships were packed with Humans. Many of us perished when the comet chunks hit, but there are still pockets of robots and androids scattered around the world."
"Why the animosity between you and the androids?"
"Androids think of themselves as closer to humans, and seek to subjugate us. In reality, they are different from us in appearance only."
"An order from me should keep them in check. Tell me how to contact them, and I’ll deal with them."
"Yes, when they see you are human, they will have no choice but to obey your orders, since they are also governed by robotic law. I will direct you to their site."
It occurred to Jay that the robots did not immediately recognize him as human, but did only after they saw him bleed. "Suppose they don’t believe I’m human, or think I’m some sort of robot trick. Must I cut myself to prove I’m human?"
"That won’t be necessary," Dizzy replied. "They have no breath. You can prove you are human by blowing on something, such as a flame or a blade of grass. Also, they have no reproductive parts. You could convince them by displaying those parts."
Jay chuckled. "I’ll use the breath method. I have one more question. I was attacked by a giant creature as I waded at the seashore. I’ve never seen anything like it."
"Many strange creatures were brought to Earth from Diana. The creatures were kept in captivity, but were released, along with other animals, just before the humans left Earth. Many were killed by the comet fragments, but some survived. The surviving alien creatures, as well as the native creatures, are increasing rapidly in number."
Speaking of the creature reminded Jay of the beating his body had taken in his struggle with the monster. He was suddenly very tired. The domestic robot somehow found material to make a pallet. He heard thunder outside, and then the drumming of rain. It was the last sound he heard before drifting off to sleep.
The next morning, Dizzy and two other robots accompanied Jay to a point near the android site.
"We will go no farther unless you order it. Our presence will trigger a battle, and you could be injured or killed."
Jay agreed and went on alone. After walking about ten minutes, he spotted a group coming to meet him, weapons drawn. He raised his hands.
As the group approached, he suddenly heard a deafening bellow behind him. he turned to see a huge creature charging him. Its body was like a huge bear, but its head resembled that of a large lizard. His hand went for his pulser as he backed away from the creature, but his foot became entangled in a vine and he fell backward. He tried to clear the pulser from the holster, but knew that he would not draw it in time. As the creature leaped toward him, the androids fired. The huge animal was thrown back by the combined blasts, and was dead as it hit the ground.
As he rose to his feet, he found himself surrounded by the androids. One of them spoke. "You are human," it said. We thought all humans were gone."
Jay was amazed that the androids had so readily recognized him as human. "How did you know that I was human?"
"The animal that attacked you was a flesh eater. It ignores androids and robots, but was drawn to the smell of your flesh. I am KN2, the leader of this group," the android continued, "we exist to serve you."
"The robots complain that you try to subjugate them," said Jay. "It is my wish that you treat them as equals."
"As you order, Sir. But without humans, all was chaos. We androids only meant to restore order, but the robots rebelled. Now your presence restores order, and we will cooperate with the robots to serve you."
In the next few weeks, Jay set the robots and androids to work cleaning up rubble, as well as repairing the few remaining flyers, ground cars, and machines that could be salvaged. He traveled to other cities, and wherever he found robots he put them to work. The work was meaningless, for there was no one to benefit from their labor. But it kept the robots and androids busy and was therapeutic to Jay as well.
Jay was not a loner, but neither was he gregarious. He enjoyed solitude, but not to the point of becoming a hermit. The robots and androids treated him like a king, but this did not satisfy his craving for human companionship.
This craving drove him to plan an all out search for humans. He guessed there were probably pockets of survivors to be found on Earth, but he decided to start his search with the terradomes of Mars; he’d been curious about the fate of the people there. Also, Dizzy had helped to construct the domes and was able to give him accurate directions to find them.
He sat at the console aboard the AGS and called the computer on The Solarwind.
"Is there enough fuel for a round trip to the planet Mars?"
After a slight pause, the computer replied. "Considering the present location of Mars in relation to Earth, there is more than an adequate supply of fuel for a round trip."
Following Dizzy’s directions, Jay found the domes with no trouble. The domes were in a circle surrounding an underground Martian lake. They were separated from each other by a distance of about one kilometer.
He descended in the AGS, choosing the northernmost dome to begin his search.
He found the door to the airlock standing open; he knew there would be no survivors here. He entered, but wished he hadn’t. Mummified corpses were scattered around the dome. Most appeared to have died a violent death.
The machinery had been dismantled and parts were missing. Nothing was growing in the hydroponics tank, and the livestock pen was empty.
The second dome was different. Some of the machines were intact, and mummified corpses of livestock were still in the pen. Several men lay strewn on the floor of the dome still clutching weapons.
The third and fourth domes were very much like the first. It was beginning to appear that the trip here was raising more questions than answers.
The entrance to the fifth dome was locked. He drew his pulser, and as he stepped back and aimed at the lock, a voice sounded from an overhead speaker.
"Drop your weapon or I will kill you."
Jay dropped the pulser and raised his hands.
"Identify yourself," the voice demanded.
"My name is Jay Francis. I come from Earth."
The door to the airlock opened. "You may enter."
Jay passed through the airlock, and as he entered the dome he found an elderly man flanked by two younger men. The old man lowered his weapon.
"So Earth finally remembered that we are here," he said. "Welcome. My name is John Hartley." He indicated the man on his right. "This is my son, Reese, and the gentleman on my left is Steven Mercer, my son-in-law."
The younger men still held their weapons trained on Jay. The man called Steven spoke. "How do we know he’s telling us the truth, John. He may be here to murder us for our equipment."
"Lower your beamer, Steven. This man can’t possibly be from anywhere but Earth. There are none left alive on Mars but us, and a man from Earth would have no use for our equipment."
The two younger men lowered their weapons. "Sorry," said Reese, "but you’re the first man we’ve seen since the war ended that wasn’t an enemy."
The men shook his hand and apologized, and Jay was allowed to retrieve his pulser and to remove his space suit.
"Come with us, and we’ll introduce you to the rest of the family ," said John.
The rest of the family included Reese’s wife, Barbara, and their two children; Steven’s wife, Stella, and their three children; and Steven’s sister, Dawn, a widow with one child.
The family was surprised and disappointed that Jay had found no survivors on Earth. Jay was equally surprised to learn what had happened on Mars.
"After the first century passed," John began, "the pilots who brought the ships to Mars were dead of old age. The original pilots had not thought to train new pilots. When people started thinking about returning to Earth, it was too late; no one knew how to pilot the ships.
"A few centuries ago, machine parts started growing scarce. When machines--even life support machines--broke down there were few parts to repair them. At first, the domes traded parts. But as parts grew more and more scarce, thievery, armed raids, and finally open warfare between domes erupted.
"It all ended a year ago. Dawn’s husband was killed in the last battle defending this dome." John’s voice broke momentarily, and then he continued. "We are the last survivors. Most of our life support equipment is damaged beyond repair; it could cease functioning at any moment."
No one spoke for a few moments, and then Jay answered a question he knew they were afraid to ask.
"The Solarwind can carry fifteen passengers, but the ship is loaded with hibernation equipment and supplies for deep space travel. We’ll need to remove the equipment to make room. There are twelve of you--six adults and six children--so the trip to Earth should be fairly comfortable." He grinned. "The Solarwind is an ancient ship, but it’ll get us to Earth."
All of the adults were familiar with machinery, so it was only a matter of hours until the hibernation equipment was removed from the ship and dumped in space.
Shortly afterward, they were underway.
They had been underway less than an hour when the buzzer sounded, indicating that someone was waiting to enter the control cabin. Jay keyed the intercom. "Come in."
Dawn came through the door. Jay thought he heard the other women giggling when the door opened.
"I’ve always dreamed of learning to fly a space ship," she said. "Do you mind if I sit here and watch you?"
"Not at all," he said, "and I would be happy to give you lessons."
She smiled. It was the first time he’d seen her smile. And, he thought, she had a very pretty smile.
Bio:Native Floridian. Retired from US Army and now living with my wife in North Carolina. Love writing, but didn't get serious until after retirement. Also love gardening, swimming, hiking, and dogs.
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