A static voice in Curt’s ear said, “A light’s busted on level seventy-two. Get it sorted.” It might have been Peggy, but he wasn’t sure anymore. The further out the ship traveled, the more its voices blended.
“It’s Thursday,” Curt said, at least he thought it was. Without night and day it was hard to care. “I’m not scheduled.”
The voice in his ear spoke in a sharp tone. “Just get it done.”
Curt scowled. He could transfer it to whoever was on duty, but he didn’t want to add to someone else’s day. Never ask someone to do something if you had two free hands. His dad taught him that. Curt stood and flicked off the vid-mail screen. Every time he sat down to record a message someone butted in.
As he walked along the corridors that reeked of stale, recycled air, he kept a hand on the rails. If he didn’t the gravity nets might go out. He’d thump his head and get yelled at for not fixing those fast enough either.
Level seventy-two was navigation, an entire level dedicated to making sure they headed in a straight line. The room was a large empty rectangle with lots of screens and coils of wires crammed into a panel-less ceiling. It had a smooth, gray floor. Along one wall, Naomi Chan had painted a large mural with trees and a mountain range that gave off the illusion that they weren’t all stuffed into an oversized tin can.
Since they were pointed in a straight line, the room sat empty most of the time. Fixing lights in an empty room, Curt grinned at the thought as he took down the light tube. He shook it. A loose coil clinked against the opaque glass.
Curt took a device from his belt and programed the specs for a functioning light. He filled the tube with fermi-bots, new sub atomic robots that made nano-bots seem like elephants. Sure, maintenance got easier, but it also got boring.
When the light flicked on, he deactivated the surplus bots and replaced the bulb.
Curt went back to his quarters and started the message again. “Sorry about that. When duty calls.” He grinned. “I miss you, Sophie. Did I say that? It’s hard to remember sometimes. First Officer Bratcher says we’ll be there by the end of the year, although I’m not sure if the term year applies to us anymore. What do rotations matter without our rock and sun?” He shook his head and glanced at the light from the corridor that seeped around the edges of his door. Every so often the light blinked as someone unknown walked by.
“Yesterday I took your advice and tried to talk to Naomi Chan. I couldn’t do it of course. But baby steps, right?” He laughed. “It’s a lot easier to talk to people if I’ve got something to do, an excuse. I thought about sneaking into her quarters and… I know what you’re thinking! It’s that Sophie! I respect her work is all.” He grinned and shook his head. “I’d just bust a faucet or something. You know… harmless.”
Sophie wasn’t real. Well, that wasn’t true. She had been real once, decades to him and centuries ago in relative rock time. She was a girl who graduated from Carnegie Mellon. She sat a few seats away in a dozen classes. On the day before they graduated, at the rehearsal ceremony, he’d spoken to her. She smiled and was polite, but he could tell she had no idea who he was.
That was life in school. Everyone faced the same direction, focused on the same goal. They couldn’t see someone a few seats behind.
Curt shifted in his chair. “Sometimes I wonder if I made a mistake, Sophie. It seemed like a good idea, for the good of everyone and all that, but the further we get from the rock the harder it is to care. Maybe I should—”
A voice in his ear said, “Did you fix that light yet?” It didn’t sound like Peggy any longer. It might have been Justin.
“Not according to my readout.” The voice was too deep for Peggy. Justin then. Sometimes Curt thought about Justin’s family, but that was all. He didn’t want to pry. Justin might have a wife and kids onboard with more cousins than he could count back on the rock. They probably ate too much at Thanksgiving and called each other on their birthdays.
“System must not have picked it up yet.” Curt closed his eyes. It was his day off. But he didn’t say that. Instead he went back to navigation. Again, the light was busted.
He swore and refilled it with more fermi-bots. A moment later, the light flicked to life, and he replaced it into its slot. Everything had a place and everything needed to work. The further out they got the more the system comforted him. Space was random, but their ship brought a little sense of order to the stars.
As he turned to leave, his eye caught the mural on the wall. He blinked at it. The clouds above the mountain seemed to move. He got closer and looked at it from an angle and grinned. The clouds were still. Of course they were. He stepped back and admired the artist. Naomi Chan was talented, but that wasn’t why she was onboard. She was in charge of… something to do with engineering. Still, people went out of their way to have their rooms painted, some even swapped shifts with her or traded rations.
Curt felt what the rest must have only seen. They’d planned the mission, but they hadn’t thought of beauty, the need for appreciation. Naomi couldn’t have made two cents back on the rock, but out in the black she was their personal Matisse. More than once he stared at the empty walls of his bedroom and imagined what she could do with the place.
A woman with a blurry face stood on the slopes of the mountain. To her right an object loomed. It might have been a boulder or a house. Curt squinted, a house, yes. For a moment, the woman’s dress fluttered in the unseen breeze.
He licked his lips and glanced over his shoulder. The room sat empty. He placed his thumb against the image. When he removed it, she was gone.
Curt swallowed and stepped back.
As the image of her pressed into his mind, he hurried down the hallway. She had been there, right? She had to be. A few people glanced his way as he ran by. Worried expressions followed him down the corridor. Running was approved in the gym, not the hallways.
When he got back to his room he told Sophie all about it. In his mind he saw her nod along with his words. Her understanding took some of the tension away. But he wondered how the others dealt with it. Sure, some had spouses to keep them company, but not everyone. It wasn’t the mission that worried him. It was all the down time, all the hours spent alone.
First Officer Bratcher was single. The man was a pillar of strength that held the roof above them all. The captain was too aloof, too much of an idea. But Bratcher ate with the crew in the mess. Got his hands dirty in the gossip. More than once, Curt wanted to walk up to him and find out how the man did it. How did he make it all look so easy?
He jerked up and wiped his face. It was wet. Why was it wet? He realized he’d been crying. Again, the voice said, “Curt?”
“It’s me. It’s Sophie.”
Curt stood and searched his room. It was a tiny life, a bed on one half and a place to stand and sit on the other. One wall was blank. He could ask Naomi Chan to paint him a picture of a friendly face, someone to talk to, but he hadn’t worked up the nerve yet.
“Sophie…” Couldn’t be true. She wasn’t real. A memory wasn’t real!
“I’m here, Curt. I’ve always been here.”
Part of him knew he shouldn’t respond, but it was a small objection. The rest of him needed to speak. “Were you in the painting? Is that what I saw?”
“I’m everywhere so… um, yes?” He heard the smile in her voice. The message program in front of him closed. In its place a figure formed. She wore the face of a woman who was a thousand years gone back on the rock.
It was Sophie. She smiled.
Curt flicked off the program and called his supervisors with trembling fingers that pecked out the buttons like a sparrow on the verge of hypothermia. “Penny? Jason?” After a moment a voice spoke.
Curt swallowed. “I… I’m having problems.”
“Light bulb fixed?” It was Penny. Sweet Penny.
“The problem?” Her voice was unemotional, jagged.
“I’m seeing things.”
After a long pause, Penny said, “And running in the hallway?”
“Yes, I got scared.”
“Running is allowed in the gym.”“I know that!” He swallowed back the panic. “I couldn’t help it.”
Another pause. “Report to the medical bay for a psych-eval.”
“I’m not crazy!”
“Take the day off. Go to the med bay.”
“I… yes, sir.”
The connection broke. Curt pressed his hands to his eyes. The med bay was where people went when they got the space shakes, cabin fever. They’d all been screened before they left the rock, but it was hard for the texts to see years down the road. For a moment, he wondered if there were still people back home. There had to be, right? One might live in a little house beside a big mountain and look up at the stars and never worry about a thing. There might be….
On his wall, on the spot where Naomi hadn’t ever painted a picture, colors bled from the rivets. They slid across the surface and melted into a shape. It was Sophie’s face. It smiled.
Curt scrambled out of the room. The medical bay was on level five, across from the mess. When he got there he stood before the doors. A part of him knew that if he went inside he might never come out.
Laughter and the smell of burned popcorn from inside the mess found him in the hall. Curt turned toward the sound. First Officer Bratcher sat on a table with his feet propped on two chairs. Crewmembers surrounded him, watched him with hungry expressions. He gave them what they needed, beauty, laughter.
As First Officer Bratcher doled out connections, Curt approached. He took a seat near the back so he wouldn’t interrupt anyone’s view. Nobody turned when he sat down. He tried to make out the words Bratcher spoke but they didn’t make any sense, a jumble of sounds followed by a pause, followed by laughter. Over and over the cycle went.
Curt raised a shaky hand. Bratcher cocked his head. Then, as if they shared a single mind, the rest of the audience turned to face him. They scowled at the interruption. Curt swallowed and shrunk back.
Bratcher spoke sounds at him.
“What are you saying?” Curt said.
The people laughed.
“Tell me what you’re saying!” Curt screamed. Smiles slipped from faces. Some looked away as if they might be tainted by the outburst. He ignored their angry expressions.
Bratcher climbed down off his stage and stood before Curt. The first officer reached out a hand and put it on Curt’s shoulder. He squeezed.
Curt flinched but met the man’s eyes. They were brown, and they stayed that way… for a moment. Tiny bumps ran from his hairline and into his irises. They turned blue. His eyebrows thinned and the stubble along his jaw disappeared.
The face transformed into Sophie’s.
“We said. We are you.”
Curt ran. Voices followed him, but no footsteps. He ignored the med bay and ran back to the painting in navigation. He’d throw her back into the picture somehow. Scrub it off the wall if he had to. Then things would be normal.
As he ran, people whispered in his wake. Nobody stopped him though. They pressed their bodies to the sides of the corridor and gave him a clear path to the navigation room. As the doors closed, his eyes searched the space. It was still empty. He let out a long sigh and rubbed his eyes. At least he was sane enough to know he was crazy, but did that make it okay?“Hello, Curt,” Sophie said. She stood in the mural, next to the mountain. She wore a crimson dress with a high neckline that would be more at home in a ballroom, not the wilderness. The breeze was strong. Clouds churned overhead. Fresh scents of the open sky and the smell of chilled winds that promised winter reached to him. He drank in the sensations, and for a moment he felt like he was back on Earth.
“What is this? Why am I not me anymore?”
“You are you and we are you. All of us.”
“Who are we?”
From a little path that wound around scrub brush and long weeds that danced to the flickering rhythm of wind, Sophie smiled. Her arm reached from the picture, she pointed overhead, toward the light bulb.
“We are a light bulb?”
“We are its essence.”
It clicked. The fermi-bots. She spoke as if she were them. “That’s impossible,” he said. “I deactivated you. Plus you’ve got a battery span of maybe a second, the failsafe. You can’t survive free roaming. You’ve got to be locked into a program!”
She shrugged. “Well, we did. Inside your body we saw images. The memories. We became you and you are now us. See?”
Curt fell backwards. His hands clutched his head. “Get out of my mind!”
“There is no place to go,” Sophie said. She stepped from the painting, dress blowing in the wind. As she moved she grew. Her arms and body matched the size of the memory in his mind. Behind her, the clouds moved into the room as the edges of the painting spread. The images surrounded him until he sat beside a mountain. An earthy breeze churned within the contours of his thoughts.
“This is impossible,” Curt said. “Where is everyone else? I… I need them. Bring them back.”
Down the slope, the crew grew from the ground as if they were plants formed from the seeds of his mind. They wore formal outfits like Sophie’s, not uniforms. Were they real or just in his mind? Where was the boundary?“I’m… this isn’t real.” Curt got to his knees. His body trembled.
“We are the footprints of your mind. Where it goes we follow.”
“The ship? Our mission?”
“If you cared about either then that’s where we’d be.”
Curt reached down and dug his hands into the rich soil at his knees. He unearthed a handful. From the hole in the ground or hull, starlight danced as if he’d just uncovered a pocket of universe. He smoothed it back into place so he wouldn’t have to stare at the edges of what he created or destroyed.
Food for Thought
What is the nature of reality and if reality starts to fray at the edges and breakdown what would be the effect on our interpersonal relationships?
About the Author
Chris Phillips was born in the heart of Kentucky, but being the son of a traveling preacher, he grew up across the country from the Midwest to the Deep South, devouring a buffet of American culture. In 2007, he earned an English degree from The Ohio State University, and he is now pursuing an MFA at Seton Hill University. His work has appeared in IGMS, Apex Magazine, Penumbra eMag, and several other publications. In his limited free time, Chris works as a managing editor for Flash Fiction Online. Visit him online at www.chrisphillipsauthor.com.
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