He awoke in darkness.
No – not darkness. Light. A clinical white light that was as enveloping as darkness, a light that somehow made his pupils dilate instead of forcing him to squint.
A faint, warm smell filled his nostrils. Lemon, with an underlying scent of … what was it? Somewhere between “meat stew two rooms away” and “recently-used shower cubicle”. Unaccountably, these mingled to become something more pleasant than it had any right to be. The smell of freshness, of new beginnings.
He turned his head, finding the movement came slowly but without the dull pain he recalled feeling for … well, for as long as he remembered. He was lying on a thin but comfortably moulded white mattress, inside an equally white tube that just barely enclosed him with an indeterminate but small space between his bare skin and the-
He frowned lightly. He was naked, his skin damp and warm and tender, a feeling he associated with hard scrubbing. His skin was also smooth, his body firm and sculpted with muscles he only dimly remembered from a youth long vanished, a youth that may have just been imagined. A second youth, one granted him by … by someone? The information flitted before him, elusive. Was he in a medical facility? They’d made so many advancements lately, it was dizzying. Had he been restored?
The bill will come due.
His frown deepened, and he opened his mouth to call for the nurse. The movement again came at a dreamlike creep, but he didn’t think he was drugged. Just not in any particular hurry. And it was once again a movement devoid of pain.
“Hello, Captain Darko.”
The voice was smooth and clearly mechanical, but reassuring. It came from everywhere.
“I didn’t authorise a rejuvenation treatment,” he rallied his senses to vocalise, although part of him wondered whether he had. He’d been very confused, lately. Forgetful. For a long time, he’d been steadily slipping away. That was why he’d been moved. Taken from active duty. Retired. Put into storage.
Is that what this is? he thought in warm, lazy concern.
“You have not received a rejuvenation treatment, Captain Darko,” the voice said softly.
The bill will come due, Athaal. And when it does…
When it does, I’ll pay it.
He’d said that. Hadn’t he? Athaal. That was him.
“In accordance with your agreement with the Yekarium syndicate, your physical FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE and will now be FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE,” the voice broke, a blaring placeholder announcement interjecting amidst the modulated phrases from the medical device in which he was lying. Athaal winced.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Your interface seems to be malfunctioning. Where am I?”
“You are aboard an AstroCorps modular starship with a transpersion-core power plant,” the voice said. “It is currently undesignated. There has been large-scale technical breakdown, during which this vessel’s fabrication superstructure sustained damage.”
“I gathered that,” Athaal said. That was his name, wasn’t it? He’d never heard of AstroCorps, and starships with nuclear transpersion reactors aboard them – nuclear transpersion reactors and fabrication superstructures, whatever they were … well, he wasn’t sure. Were they rare? Were they common? He’d certainly never been aboard one.
“This has left gaps in the subroutines surrounding your preparation,” the voice said. It didn’t sound apologetic. Just a machine, stating facts. “The required repairs and key replacement components have been logged, but will not be of any benefit to you even were they to arrive now.”
“Is that why I’m in here?” he asked. “Was it the technical breakdown, the damage to the fabrication what-have-you? Did I get injured?” he looked down at his body again. Must have been one Hell of a technical breakdown, he thought.
“No,” the voice said. “In accordance with your agreement with the Yekarium syndicate, your physical FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE and will now be FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE.”
He winced again. His head was aching. The old confusion was coming back, a discordant jumble of voices and images. Had he agreed to this? His strength, his new life, his body … there’d been a scientist. Not human. Had the scientist been connected to a syndicate? The Yekarium? What was that?
“What’s happening to me?” he whispered.
“FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE the price you agreed to, Captain Darko,” the voice said. It had grown quieter. Had it gotten darker in the tube? “Configuration will be complete in four hundred and fifty minutes. Please remain calm.”
“Not much choice,” he replied. He tried to move his arms. They responded sluggishly, feebly, even more so than his head had moved earlier. There was still no pain, but his thoughts were clouding. “What happens when you’re done configuring yourself?”
“The fabrication plant is not undergoing configuration, Captain Darko,” the voice said. “The FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE be complete in four hundred and thirty minutes.”
“That was a quick twenty minutes,” he said vaguely.
“FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE.”
“I heard that, yes.”
The bill will come due, Athaal. And when it does…
“FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE and ten minutes.”
“Is the bill due?” he asked. Who was he, who was asking this? He didn’t remember.
Wasn’t that strange?
He blinked. It happened in slow motion. Something burned for a moment, then snapped, behind his eyes. He felt a spreading warmth, inside his head and then another across his hips as he voided his bladder and bowels. It smelled of lemons and stew and soap, clean and sweet, not like shit and piss at all. He thought he’d smelled that smell before, but he didn’t remember.
He didn’t remember.
There was another snap behind his eyes, this one accompanied by a glassy sound and a sudden sharpening of the light, followed by its abrupt cessation. He heard a scream.
“Damn it, another premature configuration rejection. Get it on the janitorial and get it to recyc’.”
Shrieking and blind and squirming in his slippery printer-byproduct meconium, the misconfigured able was dragged out of the fabrication plant and clamped to the humped back of a janitorial machine. An unseen figure sighed, entered a command on a workstation interface, and the janitorial and its shuddering burden trundled away.