I stared up at the isolation room’s steel gray ceiling and fumed in frustration. Security said they’d put me here for my own safety. Huh! It’s Christmas Eve, for heaven’s sake. The holographic Xmas tree in the corner and the equally fake digital choir lip-syncing to ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ did nothing to lift my spirits.
Straps secured my wrists and ankles to the only functional smart gurney. I struggled once, twice against the restraints but in vain. Em, you’re well and truly trussed this time.
“Computer, I need a restroom break right now.”
“Dr. Brane, I’m instructed to fit a catheter should you choose to relieve yourself again.”
I did not find the computer’s husky male voice at all reassuring and no way would I let any peripheral it sent my way touch me. Why didn’t Commander Harris keep the androgynous voice profile we’d all agreed on at the pre-launch crew meeting?
“Never mind, I’ll just pee all over this bed and onto the floor you cleaned, what was it, less than ten minutes ago.” Provoking one of his peripheral units parked near the door was the only plan I had right now. “Computer, what is Harris doing?”
“Evacuating the ship,” came the deadpan reply.
Fact and fiction were entwined deep in my mind, making it hard to think straight about the events of the last thirty-six hours. Those first nuke bursts over the Indian sub-continent had shocked everyone. Watching in horror as similar exchanges multiplied across the globe had driven me and probably everyone else aboard insane with grief and anger. And knowing there was nothing we could do made it seem like a waking nightmare from which there was no escape. But I’m a fighter, and never a quitter.
“Initiate emergency override.”
Triggering an emergency override with the ship’s commander still aboard was unlikely to succeed but worth a try. How sad that Harris might escape with his crew and leave me here to die alone; a silent entombed witness to the hell unleashed below. The unfairness of my coming demise fired me up once more.
“Install self-preservation module.”
Older models like this peripheral were a weak link in Harris’s plan to silence me. Newer releases would see right through my cunning but this one was vulnerable, especially if Harris had begun disengaging the ship’s sentient processors prior to abandoning the vessel. A decade of post-doctoral research at Closely Held Systems Inc. meant I knew more about pre-AGI limitations than almost anybody else at the Academy.
I turned my head to face the door and grinned broadly as a pool of urine on the table drip-dropped onto the gleaming floor.
The peripheral responded by sliding toward me, sprayed a mist of disinfectant on the floor ahead of it, and proceeded to wipe up the mess.
Operational awareness was not this model’s strong point and I could probably urinate on the hour, every hour, and it would faithfully spray, mop and clean without complaint.
Resistance is futile; a pointless phrase I couldn't shake off ever since my ex shared a program banned over a century ago. And now all my resistance had come to this: marooned on a failing starship and doomed to watch a holocaust consume the globe below.
"You have a visitor." The peripheral's clipped voice resembled that of a guard I’d once bribed with just enough hash to see my brother before they shipped him off to join the work-crews fighting fires on the western seaboard.
Whoosh went the door and in strode Commander Harris, his straggly hair and five o’clock shadow in stark contrast to the sharp dresser who’d shown the President around only a month before launch.
"I'm disappointed in you, Em," he said in that blasé tone reserved for people he did not like. I watched him wave away the peripheral, and it slid off through the same door he'd just entered.
"Tell me more, Commander.”
Just what was he was doing at the foot of the gurney? Without warning, he stumbled to my left, and I wondered if the bottle had got the better of him again. As the ship's psychologist I couldn’t ignore substance abuse especially when it involved the most senior ranks. Why his drinking hadn’t got him kicked out of the Academy long ago was a mystery perhaps only nepotism could explain.
"Alas, my dear Em, time is short and we must soon say au revoir.”
Spite. Yes, only that could explain my mistreatment at his hands. I regretted ever stumbling upon the crew's clandestine use of psychedelics. No medical officer could ignore such flagrant abuses of authority in an operational setting.
"To tell you the truth," Harris continued, "I really wish we could bring you along too but since you couldn’t keep that pretty mouth of yours shut…”
“Reality never was your strong point,” I said, guessing my plan might work if only he’d stop moving for long enough.
“On the contrary. Nothing above or below can stop us now.”
Not even nuclear war fazed he and his motley band of mutineers from setting out on their ridiculous cosmic adventure. Chaos on Earth only excited him more.
Announcements warned a general evacuation was taking place on all three decks.
Harris barked orders into his voice agent.
“Unfortunately,” he said, in a tone that mocked my predicament, “the sands of time really have run out, my dear Em, so if you’ll just disable the dispensary’s authentication controller, I’ll collect what I need and be on my way.”
The stuff he wanted was locked in a military-grade safe only myself and the late Dr. Tiler had security clearance for. Harris would know the ship’s security systems stored the voice profiles crew members made when in an induced alpha brain wave state so as to negate any possible non-consensual usage.
“Sorry, no can do. Now hoist your Jolly Roger and be on your way, Mister Harris.” My insubordination was intentional. “Tripping on meuronic nano-narcs will do you no good.” I neglected to mention the awful end awaiting any human who jumped while under their influence.
Rage lit up his cheeks, his eyes bulged, and I feared at what he might do next. All signs pointed to a drug-induced delirium.
“I only need enough to get us to Mars.” He wiped his sweaty brow with an ungloved hand and lent against the gurney’s metal frame, breathing hard, and looking about ready to collapse. And that’s when I saw my opening.
“Perhaps I can be of some assistance after all,” I said, “but you’ll have to free me first.”
Psychedelic scenes are a bitch to do well but it helps to have an excited subject, someone flitting between euphoria and despair and unsure of what to expect next. Harris fitted the description to a tee.
Probabilities pulsed through countless mental workspaces. I scanned his face for signs suggestive of my desired outcome. If I made the wrong move at the wrong time, he’d storm off and leave me here to await my fate.
Inputs surged too. I sensed the paradrenocortine releases from his skin to the air; processing these took away resources I needed to distract him long enough to complete my preparations.
"Neurotransmitter avalanches can be injurious to human health, Commander." My groveling appalled me and made me want to puke. Generating simulations were taxing compute resources to near exhaustion. Would my gamble pay off? Without command of the ship's sentience my ruse would fall apart were he to leave this room.
"Oxygen levels at 19.9% and falling. Approaching unsurvivable levels in five-point-three minutes." That got his attention!
Have you lost your tiny mind," he shot back. He paced to-and-fro between the door and my supine form. If that door opened, I was done for.
"Ambient temperature at three Celsius and dropping." The fake systems voice impressed me enough to continue but would it be enough to keep this subject entrained for the release to take effect?
Low dosage amounts in the air would render him compliant and helpless but I had to have him open his presents and release the stuff en masse.
Levitation was a known hallucinatory side-effect, but given that he continued to prowl the room with intent, there must still be insufficient particles in his bloodstream.
"Untie me this instant," I cried, "or they'll leave without you."
Captured I might be but so was he now, at least until the drug's effects wore off a few minutes from now.
I sensed no other active systems within my immediate control, other than the electrical circuits to this room. Aha! Of course!
"Noel, Noel, the first Noel." I sang that opening line on repeat at the top of my voice because my memories of what this mob of a crew called Christmas carols were hazy at best.
"Knock off that racket. My ear drums are about to burst."
Getting his attention was the easy part; now for the coup de grace.
"Experience suggests, Commander, that you'll need to don gravity shoes else you'll end up stuck fast to the hull when the spin stops."
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my late mentor's mantra coming true before my eyes: all space travel is mental; there is no other main rule.
Ingesting such a potent chemical cocktail had of course made him a tricky subject to depend on. What I needed now was for that robotic relic to shuffle in again and drag his sorry ass to the brig, assuming that was still working.
Commanders, whatever their fame or their billionaire wealth, should never be allowed to play these stupid mind games with reluctant subordinates. This time I intend to teach him a lesson he'll never forget.
I sang still louder.
"Make it stop," he cried out like someone nursing the hangover from hell. Flecks of white spit bubbled from one corner of his mouth, and his left hand trembled uncontrollably. He might not last much longer.
Unwilling to give up my psychological advantage, I pressed my luck harder.
"Side-effects, some permanent, most harmless, include night sweats, retinal thinning, and uncontrollable flatulence." I paused for effect. "Some prisoners reported hair loss, repulsive body odors, and erectile dysfunction."
Hair loss or loss of libido. One of these two got this vain creature’s full attention for he stumbled over to the biosensor behind the head of my gurney and disabled the restraining module that had controlled my bondage.
Release came seconds later. I sat up, swung my legs to the side so that my feet touched the floor, and tried but failed to ignore waves of painful pins and needles tingling through them from calf to sole. Fade to vacuum blackness.
Obnoxious, offensive, obscene. No words could describe how I felt about this fool and his pointless experiments. Sure, the Academy gets petabytes of useful data about meuronal brain stimulation without having to leave Earth's gravity well. But at what price? Volunteers quit at an alarming rate. Others never made it back to reality, leaving the Academy liable for their full-time care.
Observers of this debacle later confirmed my subjective experiences.
Mass hallucination experiments among even consenting pyschonauts remain an ethical conundrum for the Academy, one that humans ignore at their peril.
Survivors of EXPERIMENT #R5-12-22, STARSHIP EVACUATION USING MEURONAL TUNNELS, could not be reached for comment.
Writer's Note: (Contains Spoiler)
This story was written in December 2023 as my entry to a Secret Santa Challenge hosted at https://www.sffchronicles.com/
I was given the following story prompt:
"A Science Fiction story with astronauts tripping on hallucinogenic mushrooms, please."
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