Story Excerpt

The Mind Is Its Own Place

by Carrie Vaughn

Professional fingers pried open Mitchell’s left eyelid, and white light blinded him. The process repeated on the right. He winced and turned his head to escape. The grip released him.

“Lieutenant Greenau?”

He lay on a bunk in an infirmary. It wasn’t the Francis Drake’s infirmary. The smell was wrong; the background hum of the vessel was wrong. This place sounded softer, more distant. Larger. With effort, he shifted an arm. His head hurt. He felt like he’d been asleep for days.

“Lieutenant Greenau? Mitchell?” The figure at the side of his bed gave him something to focus on. A middle-aged man in a white tunic, with a narrow face and a receding hairline, frowned at him. “How are you feeling?”

“Groggy.” He struggled for awareness.

“You were sedated.”

“Can you give me something to clear it up?”

“I’d rather not put anything else into your system just yet.”

He wished he didn’t have to ask: “Where am I?”

“You’re at Law Station, Lieutenant.”

Law Station was a Military Division forward operating base and shipyard. It would have taken the Drake days to get here, and he didn’t remember the trip. Law also housed an extensive medical facility.

Softly, as if afraid of upsetting a fragile piece of equipment, he asked, “Why am I here?”

“What do you remember?”

He’d arrived on the bridge for his shift. He’d checked in with Captain Scott. Then he assumed he’d taken his place at the navigator station. He must have done his job as he had a hundred times before. He checked in with the captain, the duty log scanned his thumbprint—

“I was on the Francis Drake. On the bridge. I said good morning to the captain. Then—I don’t remember.” He kneaded the sheet draped over him, cramping his fingers. He was wearing a patient gown, not his uniform.

“That’s all right.” The doctor smiled, but the expression was shallow, artificial, a forced attempt at bedside manner. “I’m Doctor Dalton, one of the supervising physicians here. If you need anything, a pager is at the side of the bunk.”

“Doctor—” Mitchell forced himself up, rolling to his side and leaning hard on his elbow. The effort left him gasping. “What happened?”

Dalton’s manner was implacable, as if he’d had this conversation before, with other patients, over many years. “This is the neurophysiology ward. Are you familiar with what we do here?”

His heart pounded; his tongue was dry. “Yes.”

“You were brought here because you have OSDS.”

Among themselves, in private, the navigators called it Mand Dementia. The condition was degenerative and incurable. It was one of the risks of the job. An acceptable risk.

“But I feel fine. I don’t feel—” Except for the sedation—why had he needed to be sedated? “I don’t feel sick. I’m not—” I’m not crazy.

“I know, Lieutenant. I’m sorry.”

Mitchell slumped back against the mattress.

*   *   *

He kept a close count of the time. It seemed important, to prove he wasn’t sick. Everything he did had to be normal and healthy. He wasn’t sick, and the doctor was wrong.

Halfway through his first waking day cycle, he heard voices coming from the office next to the infirmary. Doctor Dalton was one, and he brightened to hear the other: Captain Crea Scott.

Dalton said, “He didn’t exhibit any symptoms before?”

Scott answered, her normally brash voice hushed and brittle: “He didn’t. I know what to look for. He was fine at the start of the shift, and an hour later he was screaming about flying monkeys to starboard—”

Mitchell lay very still.

“He hasn’t exhibited any symptoms since he’s been here. He also doesn’t remember anything that happened. We won’t know the extent of the damage until we run tests.”

“Could there be a mistake? Could it be something else?”

“I reviewed the log myself, Captain.”

“May I see him?”

“That should be all right.”

Mitchell lay with his back to the door and didn’t see them enter. He waited to turn when Scott said, “Lieutenant Greenau?”

Scott stood a few feet away from the bed, her petite frame tense, her arms crossed. Her face was drawn; she looked ten years older than the last time he’d seen her—when?

He sat up and smiled, relieved. Like she was going to rescue him or something. “Captain Scott. It’s good to see you.”

She didn’t return the smile. “How are you feeling, Lieutenant?”

“Still groggy from the sedative. But I’m okay. I feel fine.” He glanced at Doctor Dalton to make sure he heard.

“That’s good.”

“Captain, I don’t understand why I’m here.”

“That’s okay. Just rest. Don’t worry about it.” After putting a hand on his arm, she bowed her head and turned away.

“I did something, didn’t I? What did I do?”

Scott didn’t turn around. Her voice was painfully steady. “Just take care of yourself, Mitchell. Don’t worry.”

Dalton followed Scott out of the room, and Mitchell heard his captain say, “He’ll be safe here?”

“Yes. As safe as we can make him.”

Then Scott said, her voice low and angry, “Make sure he never remembers what happened.”

A door slid open, then closed again, and the captain was gone.

*   *   *

He pressed his thumb to the duty log, he said good morning to the captain, he went to his station—

He only knew that much because it was the routine, what he’d done over and over for years. Was he remembering some other time, or that time?

Compared to his quarters aboard the Drake, the room he was given here was spacious, an eight by eight square with a bed, desk, computer console, and private washroom. For the whole of his adult life, Mitchell had slept in closets, with a narrow bunk and a cupboard for his belongings. He’d shared washrooms with other junior officers. Who needed more? Who ever spent time in their rooms? He’d always been so busy.

The door to the room locked from the outside. He couldn’t leave without escort. Orderlies brought meals and returned to take away the trays. Mitchell counted two of them, Baz and Jared, working in shifts. They were polite. Mitchell said thank you, and they smiled at him. He had a change of clothing—pale blue hospital-issue jumpsuits—every day. He could read or watch entertainments at the console to pass the time, when he wasn’t in therapy.

That first night he didn’t sleep, but lay back on his cot and stared at a bubbled security monitor in the ceiling, wondering if this was a test.

*   *   *

The second doctor he encountered had an unflappably optimistic professional demeanor, and Mitchell distrusted her for no good reason except that nobody was that genuinely enthusiastic about anything. In spite of himself, Mitchell shook her hand after Baz escorted him to her lab.

Her space was a bit more inviting than other areas of the hospital. Handheld terminals lay strewn across the desk among forgotten drink bottles and writing implements. A sweater hung over the back of a chair. Photos shone from wall displays: image after image of human brains, parts color-coded and labeled.

A dark-skinned woman with short hair and an eager smile, she came around the desk. “Lieutenant Greenau? I’m Doctor Ava Keesey. I’ll be starting your therapy today.” She offered her hand.

“Not Doctor Dalton?”

“I’ve requested your case. I hope that’s all right?”

He didn’t know what his choices were to be able to make one, so he said nothing.

“Have a seat right over here, Lieutenant.” She guided him to a reclining chair surrounded by unidentifiable equipment. Gingerly, he climbed in; its cushions molded under him, supporting his body. The chair tipped back until he was horizontal.

“Any questions before we start?”

“Is the Drake still in dock?”

“I don’t know. I can check for you.”

Her smile was fake; he didn’t think she would check.

“What happened? Why was I brought here?”

“It’s better if you remember on your own, rather than construct false memories based on anything I tell you. If you can please keep your head back, I’d like to start the scan.” Her cool hand on his forehead eased him back against the headrest. “You’ve been through a cortical mapping session before, yes?”

“Yes.” Every navigator had one done at the start of their career. A baseline.

“Then you know all about this. Just relax.”

Machinery closed over his crown, sensors pressing against his scalp, tickling the fuzz of his hair. He looked straight up to off-white ceiling.

“Can you hear me?” she said.

“Yes.”

“I’d like you to move your left thumb. And again. Left index. And again. Left middle. And again.”

And so it went, through the range of motor skills, then across the range of sensory input. Keesey played music and noises, offered him tastes, put sandpaper and cotton into his hands, recording the results with straightforward efficiency.

“Now I’m going to show you some colors, each one for a few seconds. Pay attention, please.”

A screen swung into view over the chair and flashed to life, displaying solid blue, then green, then yellow.

He went to the navigator station, slid into his chair and belted in. Ready for the jump in three, two—the monitor showed a swirl of color. The wrong colors, circling like predators—

Orange, red, purple. Mitchell blinked. Solid squares appeared in sequence on the screen. Harmless.

“What is two plus two, Lieutenant?”

“Four.”

“Two times two?”

“Four.”

“Four times four?”

“Sixteen.”

“Sixteen squared?”

“Two hundred fifty-six.”

Yellow, orange, red.

“Thank you.”

The wrong colors. They were the wrong colors.

Keesey moved away, her footsteps clicking on the hard floor of the lab. He remained locked in the chair, unable to turn his head.

“Can I sit up?”

“In a minute, Lieutenant.”

He wished he could see what she was doing. He heard clicks, movements, maybe fingers tapping on a keypad, or machinery shifting into place. All the sounds were inexplicable.

Mitchell waited a painful, silent minute before saying, “Doctor?”

“Patience, Lieutenant. I want to get a little more data.” Did her voice sound stressed? Uncertain?

She went through the entire sequence again, generating a second cortical map. Finally, she released him from the equipment.

“What’s wrong?” he said, sitting up.

Her smile didn’t seem any different than the one she gave him at the start of the session. “How much do you know about OSDS?”

Occupational Synaptic Dysfunction Syndrome. It was the bogeyman, the monster in the dark. The price they paid for crossing the void. Some people said M-drive propulsion violated the laws of physics, and the Universe took the cost of that somewhere else: in the minds of the navigators who plotted courses through the unreal. Their minds became . . . nonlinear.

“It affects the neural organization of the brain,” he said.

Keesey said, “It develops when some neurotransmitters don’t reach adjacent neurons but instead stimulate neurons in distant parts of the brain. Reducing the stimulation our patients receive can prevent the damage from getting worse by keeping faulty connections from developing. That means sheltering patients, perhaps more than seems reasonable. I’ll have some instructions for you once I’ve had a chance to study the scans.”

“You made two maps. Is that normal?”

“Just confirming the data, Lieutenant.”

She hadn’t believed what she saw the first time.

“But I don’t feel sick.” If he were really well, he wouldn’t have to keep saying it.

“And we want to keep you that way.”

She escorted him back to his quarters herself. He would never be allowed to just wander, would he? He was curious about every door, every branch in the corridor. Every place he couldn’t go. And where was the Drake now?

They’d almost reached his quarters when a scream rang out and echoed along the walls. The corridor curved to match the curve of the station; the scream came from ahead, just out of sight.

Keesey’s practiced demeanor slipped. “Stay here.” She gripped his arm and pushed him against the wall, as if she could stick him there.

When she trotted ahead, Mitchell followed her, to where Baz was half-helping, half-dragging a thirty-year-old man in a hospital jumpsuit through an open door. Mitchell couldn’t tell if they were trying to enter or leave what must have been the man’s quarters. Baz held the man’s shoulders, as if he were simply guiding him, but he stumbled, his legs buckling as if he couldn’t support himself. Disheveled brown hair hung around his shoulders, he held his hands over his ears, and his face was twisted in an anguished cry. He screamed again.

Keesey knelt by the patient and tried to take hold of his face.

“Morgan, look at me. Morgan! Focus!”

The man, Morgan, squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.

Keesey said, “Baz, I can’t look after him now. Take him to the infirmary, and I’ll be there in a minute.” She pulled something out of her pocket—a patch—and slapped it on Morgan’s wrist. His struggles subsided; his moans continued.

The orderly nodded and lifted his burden, guiding Morgan along the corridor, past Mitchell, stopping every few steps as the man doubled over, then raising him up and continuing.

Keesey quickly took Mitchell’s arm and steered him back to his own room—just a couple of doors down from Morgan’s. She keyed it open with her wristband, and she urged him inside. He was being put away in a box.

“What’s wrong with him?” Mitchell asked.

“Get some rest, Mitchell. We’ll talk later about your treatment.”

“But—”

“He has OSDS, Mitchell.”

*   *   *

He sat at his tiny desk and pretended it was the Drake’s navigator station, the self-contained compartment located through a hatch at the fore of the equipment-laden bridge. Here, isolated from the bustle at the heart of the ship, he monitored the calculations that allowed the M-drive to fling the ship from one point to another across folded space. It was a mind-boggling journey, possible through a complex quirk of physics, comprehensible through advanced mathematics. Nevertheless, Mitchell was a romantic, and he could imagine the journey—not an instantaneous manipulation of space-time, but a race across the galaxy, stars flying past in a Dopplered rainbow of colors, the gas of nebulae swirling in his wake. The stuff of children’s adventure stories.

If this were the chair in his station, the computer console would have been here, the screen here, the proximity monitor here, the holo-maps there. Where had they been going? Had the blank space in his memory happened before or after they’d jumped? He would have located departure and arrival matrices, he would have generated equations describing those endpoints in real space, converted the holography . . .

He thought some part of the process would jog his memory. He calculated a dozen iterations of the same equation, variations in the matrices, imagined the graph they would plot, imagined traveling along that shape. The Universe and all its paths could be described this way.

The path made a swirl of colors—gases inflamed by cosmic radiation, distant starlight—and the colors made him nervous. They never had before.

The computer had to be connected to Law Station’s network. The Drake had docked here, so the station database would have some record of it. The Drake’s logs might even have been uploaded.

From this terminal he was only supposed to have access to entertainments, but with a little hunting, he found that the library’s reading material included the station’s daily news feed, which listed a record of dockings by interstellar ships. Mitchell found the records from a couple of weeks before and worked forward.

A week ago, the M.D.S. Francis Drake had docked for temporary repairs. It was scheduled to continue to the Mil Div Sol shipyards for more extensive repairs. That hadn’t been on their schedule; the Drake had years of operation left before it needed an overhaul. Unless something had happened. And something had happened, or Mitchell wouldn’t be here. The logs, he had to find the logs—

The screen went blank, the computer shut down. Its power had been cut off. Standard procedure for any terminal being used for unauthorized access.

He stared at his hands, flattened on the surface of the desk. They weren’t even shaking.

*   *   *

“Lieutenant, I’d really appreciate it if you not work on any math.” Keesey said.

He had started physical therapy—work on a treadmill, standard weightlifting. It was very boring, but the doctors watched him closely. Maybe in case he started singing when he only meant to move his leg.

He stopped walking. The treadmill powered down. “What?”

“You have books to read, vids to watch. You should avoid mathematics problems.”

He laughed. Navigational math lived in his brain like his own heartbeat; he didn’t even think of it.

Keesey explained: “The mathematics involved in navigation instigated your injury. I don’t want you making it worse.”

“Doctor, what was wrong with my cortical map?”

She consulted her handheld, donned her pleasant demeanor. “I think you might benefit from some social time. Meet some of the other patients so you can realize you’re not alone here.”

He knew he wasn’t alone. He’d seen Morgan.

*   *   *

The common room where stabilized patients were allowed to socialize was carpeted, comfortable, and round. It gave an impression of nest-like safety. There were no corners to cower in. A few upholstered chairs occupied one side, some tables the other. The lighting was soft. An orderly stood watch inside the doorway.

Three people wearing hospital jumpsuits sat in the room, all apart from each other. Only one, a shorthaired woman curled up in one of the easy chairs, reading a handheld, looked up when Mitchell and Keesey appeared in the doorway.

The other two, a man and a woman, sat at different tables. The woman’s eyes were closed, and she nodded in time to some tune all her own. The man held a stylus and bent over a handheld datapad, which he marked now and then. There was something odd about him, something small and shrunken. Maybe because he wore a helmet shielding him down to his ears. Mitchell expected him to start banging his head against the table at any moment.

Mitchell whispered to Keesey, “What’s the point of socializing if no one talks to each other?”

“Have a little patience.” She gestured to the man and woman at the tables. “Communication is difficult for Jaspar and Sonia, so they’ve isolated themselves. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t spend time in proximity with others. But here—this is Dora.”

No ranks, no surnames. Their old lives had been thoroughly erased here. He wanted his uniform back.

She led him to the side of the room where the woman watched them expectantly. “Dora? I’d like you to meet our new resident. This is Mitchell.”

“Hello, Mitchell.” Dora, head propped on her hand, smiled up at him.

Mitchell gave a mental sigh of relief. She sounded normal. Friendly, even. Not prone to screaming.

Keesey said, “Baz will come fetch you in half an hour.” She left them alone.

Dora gestured at the chair next to hers. “Sit. You look uncomfortable.”

“I am uncomfortable. I don’t think I belong here.”

“Because you’re not crazy. Because you’re not like them.” She nodded at the others.

“I’m not. I’m not.”

Dora smiled a thin, cat-like smile. “What made them send you here?”

“I don’t remember.”

She tapped her nose and grinned wider.

“So why are you here?” he asked.

She gave a demure tilt to her head. “It was a conspiracy. Captain didn’t like me. Some of the crew didn’t agree with the decision to lock me up. They’ll come back for me, break me out of here.”

And to think she acted so normal.

“Ah,” she said. “You’re giving me a look like now you think I’m crazy, too.”

“They break you out? Then what? You become pirates?”

“Hm, that sounds like fun. Didn’t you dream of that when you were a kid? Being a pirate, blazing across space having all sorts of adventures.”

“I was going to save innocent starships from the bad pirates. Kids never dream about being bad pirates; it’s always good pirates.”

“There are no good pirates.”

Mitchell gestured toward Jaspar and Sonia. “Do you know anything about them?”

Dora sat back in her chair. “Jaspar doesn’t do anything but work puzzles—for six-year-olds. Sonia will talk to you, but she won’t make any sense. Go try it.”

He half-expected this to be some sort of initiation—humiliate the new kid by making him try to find something that wasn’t there. But he crossed the room to Sonia anyway. She was pretty, if ragged. In her thirties, like all of them were, because that was when Mand Dementia tended to strike.

“Hello,” he said, sitting in the chair across from her.

She looked up. Her eyes were swollen, shadowed, tired. Her light-colored hair needed brushing.

“I’m Mitchell. I’m new, so I thought I’d introduce myself.”

She sat very still, in contrast to her previous nodding.

“Dora says you’ll talk.”

“Glass. Concerto for Violin,” she said in a hesitating voice.

Mitchell blinked, startled. “What does that mean?”

Her eyes glistened. There was a spark of something there, a flicker. Understanding. Sentience. Something that wasn’t insane. Like she was staring through the bars of a cage.

“Chopin. Opus 28, Prelude Number 6.”

Composers. Music. She was speaking pieces of music like they meant something. He stared at her, wishing he could understand, and it was like staring into his own future.

“Chopin. Opus 28, Prelude Number 6,” she called after him when he turned to leave. Her gaze pleaded, but he didn’t understand what she wanted. Except maybe out of here, like him.

He tried talking to Jaspar next, but the man turned his back on him, filling Mitchell’s sight with the off-white mound of his helmet—that was protecting what, exactly?

He returned to Dora, who explained, “She was a musician. The dementia cross-wired music and language. Keesey thinks there’s some correlation between the mood or situation and what song she says. You know, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ means ‘pissed off.’ I think it’s a smokescreen and she’s just hiding from everyone.”

“She looks like she’s listening to something.”

“The music in her mind. The doctors won’t let her listen to actual music. They’re afraid it’ll ‘reinforce faulty neural pathways,’” she said. She did a pretty good impression of Dalton’s flat tone. “I knew her, before. She associated every step of navigating to different songs. She said the sound of an M-drive powering up matched the opening measures of the overture to ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’ Then it all went to hell, I guess.”

If someone locked you in a room full of crazy people, was there any chance that you weren’t crazy?

She said softly, “You know, everyone here commits suicide sooner or later. The whole place is a futile attempt to keep us from killing ourselves. But everyone manages it. They can’t help us. This isn’t a hospital, it’s a hospice.”

Quietly he said, “How do you stand it?”

She spread her hand over the handheld in her lap. “I’m looking at this as a chance to catch up on my reading.”

“Lieutenant? It’s time to leave.” Baz stood at his shoulder. Mitchell hadn’t been aware of his approach. Meekly, he let the orderly guide him away.

*   *   *

Back in his room, he listened to the piece of music Sonia had named, the Chopin. A sad piano melody wafted gently from his terminal, like a ghost. He wondered what it meant to her.

Dora was wrong: This was not a place where navigators killed themselves. Keesey was wrong: he was not ill. He kept trying to remember what happened on the Drake. The thing Scott didn’t want him to remember, that the doctors didn’t want him to think about.

He’d signed in, said good morning to the captain, went to his station. We have an hour until we need to jump, Lieutenant. The first step to initiating a jump was identifying the arrival matrix and locking in coordinates. The next step: convert the holography of local space from manifold to loop representation, another computerized operation that nonetheless required monitoring.

Ultimately the navigator, the human element, confirmed the optimum departure matrix generated by the navigation system, or chose an alternate. Then the M-drive would push the ship through it to emerge across interstellar space at the desired arrival matrix. At some level, even if only intuitively, he had to understand the mathematics that connected the two ends of the ship’s journey.

By remembering routine, he forced himself through his breakdown, moment by moment.

He confirmed the departure matrix—and it was wrong. The colors swirled around it like light bursting to its death, and the space through which the ship should have been traveling was a mouth waiting to devour them. It wasn’t a departure matrix but a black hole. The colors were wrong, the math was wrong, the computer was broken—

“Mitchell! Look at me.”

Keesey leaned over him. Her cool hand touched his cheek. His skin was clammy, and his heart was racing. He couldn’t control his breathing; air rasped roughly through his throat. He was on the floor of his quarters; some alarm must have summoned the doctor.

“What is it, Mitchell? What happened?” Her concern was professional, unemotional.

“I-I think I remembered something.”

“Can you describe it?”

He had to speak very carefully. He didn’t want to say the wrong thing. He had to say the thing that would explain all this away. “I saw colors. They were wrong.”

He winced and turned his head, or tried to, but Keesey held him in place. Baz stood behind her. A vent fan hummed somewhere.

“Make your mind a blank, Mitchell. Let the images fall away until you see nothing.”

He obeyed her psychiatrist’s calm, and the colors faded. Baz came closer with a bottle and urged him to drink. Mitchell was obedient. The rehydrating fluid somehow made him feel weaker. He shouldn’t need all this attention, this treatment. He wasn’t sick.

“There was something wrong with the computer,” he tried to tell them. That would explain everything.

Keesey wrote on a handheld as she spoke. “Your cortical map shows a faulty connection within your visual cortex. You can’t trust your eyes, Mitchell. I know this is going to be hard, but I’d like you to limit your visual stimulation over the next couple of days. I can give you a blindfold if you’d like.”

Blindfold? Like taking away Sonia’s music.

“What are you writing down?” he asked. Maybe he shouldn’t be looking. Is this what she meant by visual stimulation?

“Some exercises we’ll try at your next session. We need to stabilize the dysfunctional area of the visual cortex. Please, rest your eyes if you can.”

If they could reduce his world to a tiny, thoughtless box, then nothing at all could damage him. They could blindfold him. But he was still going to try and remember.

 

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Copyright © 2016. The Mind Is Its Own Place by Carrie Vaughn

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