Inert within the depths of his theta chamber, he heard the faint tone and then the synthovoice. "Five minutes."
"Okay," he said, and struggled out of his deep sleep. He had five minutes to adjust the course of his ship; something had gone wrong with the auto-control system. An error on his part? Not likely; he never made errors. Jason Bedford make errors? Hardly.
As he made his way unsteadily to the control module, he saw that Norman, who had been sent with him to amuse him, was also awake. The cat floated slowly in circles, batting at a pen that somehow had gotten loose. Strange, Bedford thought.
"I thought you were unconscious with me." He examined the readout of the ship's course. Impossible! A fifth-parsec off in the direction of Sirius. It would add a week to his journey. With grim precision he reset the controls, then sent out an alert signal to Meknos III, his destination.
"Troubles?" the Meknosian operator answered. The voice was dry and cold, the calculating monotone of something that always made Bedford think of snakes.
He explained his situation.
"We need the vaccine," the Meknosian said. "Try to stay on course."
Norman the cat floated majestically by the control module, reached out a paw, and jabbed at random; two activated buttons sounded faint bleeps and the ship altered course.
"So you did it," Bedford said. "You humiliated me in the eyes of an alien. You have reduced me to idiocy vis-a-vis the alien mind." He grabbed the cat. And squeezed.
"What was that strange sound?" the Meknosian operator asked. "A kind of lament."
Bedford said quietly, "There's nothing left to lament. Forget you heard it." He shut off the radio, carried the cat's body to the trash sphincter, and ejected it.
A moment later he had returned to his theta chamber and, once more, dozed. This time there would be no tampering with his controls. He dozed in peace.
When his ship docked at Meknos III, the senior member of the alien medical team greeted him with an odd request. "We would like to see your pet."
"I have no pet," Bedford said. Certainly it was true.
"According to the manifest filed with us in advance --"
"It is really none of your business," Bedford said. "You have your vaccine; I'll be taking off."
The Meknosian said, "The safety of any life-form is our business. We will inspect your ship."
"For a cat that doesn't exist," Bedford said.
Their search proved futile. Impatiently, Bedford watched the alien creatures scrutinize every storage locker and passageway of his ship. Unfortunately, the Meknosians found ten sacks of dry cat kibble. A lengthy discussion ensued among them, in their own language.
"Do I have permission," Bedford said harshly, "to return to Earth now? I'm on a tight schedule." What the aliens were thinking and saying was of no importance to him; he wished only to return to his silent theta chamber and profound sleep.
"You'll have to go through decontamination procedure A," the senior Meknosian medical officer said. "So that no spore or virus from --"
"I realize that," Bedford said. "Let's get it done."
Later, when decontamination had been completed and he was back in his ship starting up the drive, his radio came on. It was one or another of the Meknosians; to Bedford they all looked alike. "What was the cat's name?" the Meknosian asked.
"Norman," Bedford said, and jabbed the ignite switch. His ship shot upward and he smiled.
He did not smile, however, when he found the power supply to his theta chamber missing. Nor did he smile when the backup unit could also not be located. Did I forget to bring it? he asked himself. No, he decided; I wouldn't do that. They took it.
Two years before he reached Terra. Two years of full consciousness on his part, deprived of theta sleep; two years of sitting or floating or -- as he had seen in military-preparedness training holofilms -- curled up in a corner, totally psychotic.
He punched out a radio request to return to Meknos III. No response. Well, so much for that.
Seated at his control module, he snapped on the little inboard computer and said, "My theta chamber won't function; it's been sabotaged. What do you suggest I do for two years?"
THERE ARE EMERGENCY ENTERTAINING TAPES
"Right," he said. He would have remembered. "Thank you." Pressing the proper button, he caused the door of the tape compartment to slide open.
No tapes. Only a cat toy -- a miniature punching bag -- that had been included for Norman; he had never gotten around to giving it to him. Otherwise. . . bare shelves.
The alien mind, Bedford thought. Mysterious and cruel.
Setting the ship's audio recorder going, he said calmly and with as much conviction as possible, "What I will do is build my next two years around the daily routine. First, there are meals. I will spend as much time as possible planning, fixing, eating, and enjoying delicious repasts. During the time ahead of me, I will try out every combination of victuals possible." Unsteadily, he rose and made his way to the massive food storage locker.
As he stood gazing into the tightly packed locker -- tightly packed with row upon row of identical snacks - he thought, On the other hand, there's not much you can do with a two-year supply of cat kibble. In the way of variety. Are they all the same flavor?
They were all the same flavor.