His time on the island had already grown too long, he realized. It had been a full day, and the mailbox on the little computer still hadn’t found any sources of mail to connect with. There was no sign of a boat.
He had noticed that his island had no tides. Just as well since it rose only four meters or so above sea level. But he had watched the sun rise, drift lazily across the sky, and set.
When he had grown hungry the previous evening and opened the tiny refrigerator, he had discovered why Jane the doctor had asked his dietary preferences. He had found a nice chicken-and-rice dinner waiting for him. He’d eaten the food, and then in the morning there had been scrambled eggs and waffles. Next time he opened the fridge, there was another meal ready and waiting. So, it was more than just a refrigerator, it was a metaphor – it was a way for the simulation to keep him supplied with simulated food to feed his simulated hunger. The layers of perception and deception involved made him shake his head. But the hunger felt real, the food tasted real, and chewing it felt real, so he said a prayer over the food and ate it, hoping to feel real satisfaction.
Surely someone ought to have contacted him by now. He poked at the little computer in the cabin. The mail program had no messages for him – just an error saying it couldn’t contact any mail service. Likewise the browser couldn’t find a network connection. He even tried to open the filesystem to see if there was anything meaningful there, but he couldn’t connect to it.
He’d tried configuration options, but if there were any network settings that elicited any response, he’d missed them. It looked like there was absolutely nothing out there. He hadn’t gotten a single response from the network, or even the shipboard operating system. Every message he had seen arose from software running within his virtual world.
So he started digging around the rest of the programs on the little computer. None of the ones that were supposed to talk to anything outside his cube worked. None. Not even a simple desktop accessory that was supposed to display the time. He started it, and it crashed. He stared at the computer.
Well, crap. If he couldn’t contact anything outside his save cube, he’d have to see if he could use any of the hardware on the save cube itself. He’d had himself saved on a standard cube, and besides memory and a little processing power, he knew that those had a half-dozen interfaces.
Within a half-hour, back and forth between reading help files and entering commands on a primitive command line interface, he had accessed the cube’s data ports and determined that the power was being supplied through the bus on the multicontact interface. Which meant the optic interface on the opposite side of the cube had to be facing out of the socket. Within another half hour he had discovered a program that was supposed to use the optic interface as a camera. It was crude, but it was useful enough that somebody had decided it ought to be part of the emergency contact package his computer was loaded with.
Another thought brought him up short. In what sense was he meaningfully different from this computer? He and the supposed machine were both just data in the virtual world. So is there any distinction anymore, he mused, between “it” and “I”? Isn’t the computer just the part of me that can run software without paying attention to every step? And isn’t this unorthodox access to the optic interface just me, as a machine lifeform now, learning to use my own eye?
Shrugging, he started up the program. Then he froze.
It opened a little window on the screen. In the window, he could see half the captain’s head, and a cauterized mess where the other half ought to have been. Behind the captain, the head and most of the upper torso of one of the other bridge crew had drifted in zero-gee and come to rest against a bulkhead. He could see a jagged scorch mark on the steel bulkhead next to the corpse’s right shoulder.
“Oh. Shit.” He stared at the screen, mute with shock and horror. All his questions about why no one had tried to contact him were answered, and a million more questions, each more urgent than the last, were forming in his mind.