Soni opened the door and stepped out into the corridor. She felt the ridges of the enamel floor caressing her bare feet. The two tenths standard gravity meant that the ridges were barely caressing her feet, not inflicting painful pressure against her soles like they would if she were on Earth, but it was cold. Colder than it should have been? The air felt cold too. She checked the dat on her arm. It showed the corridor temperature was nominal.
Most of the crew was asleep, this being C shift. Baxter and Jones were on watch on the bridge. They were the only ones who were required to be up. But Soni was restless. Her brain seemed to be in overdrive and it was impossible to sleep. Out in the corridor the smell was stronger. A metallic pungent smell of twelve people living in close proximity that no amount of atmospheric recycling could clean. You would think she would be used to it by now after three weeks in space. But she wasn’t. The ridge pressure on the soles of her feet told her she was walking. She didn’t even realize that she was heading for the bridge. Soni stopped and looked around. Why was she going to the bridge? Was she going to the bridge? I should probably go back to bed, she thought. Yet in another moment she found herself standing before the ladder chute that led to deck One. It was awash in shadows. One of the lights was probably out. The smell seemed stronger behind her, so she started up the darkened ladder.
From the top of the chute she could turn left to the bridge or right to the airlock. There was whispering again, faint susurrations seeping into her brain. She looked around. Where was it coming from? Soni turned right. The port to the airlock was dark. no one was inside. She still heard whispering but she couldn’t make out what was being said. The inner lock door opened with a sigh and she realized that she had somehow opened it. She stepped inside. The floor was ice cold on her bare feet. The cold was seeping up her legs, becoming painful. Something was wrong. She looked around at the stark white walls of the lock. There was more whispering. The port to the outside showed the blackness of space. She saw the control panel to her left. The outer door would not open while the inner door was open. That was a good thing. It was a good thing. Why was she here? She should go back to her room. But there was something she had to do.
“Soni?” Baxter asked. He had come to investigate why the airlock door was open and found Soni inside. She turned and saw him. Her eyes darted around, grew wide, and she started to scream.
The whole ship was up, crowded around the entrance to the med bay. Dr. Cynthia Knight had her hand on Soni’s shoulder. Soni shivered and tried to keep from sobbing. “What’s wrong Soni? What happened?”
“I . . . I,” she shook her head, tears leaking out. She quickly wiped them away.
“Take your time.” Dr. Knight got up and returned with a cup of water. Soni sipped at it timidly. She tried to get her breathing under control. The doctor handed her a faurium tablet. “This will calm you down. Put it under your tongue.”
Soni hesitated a moment, and then did as she was told. “I feel like such an idiot.”
“No, no. You are a human being; we all have our moments.” The doctor looked behind her at the ten other crew members. “I think you should all go back to bed, or to work. Give her some privacy.” The others dispersed out of sight into the corridor. Commander Gila lingered for a moment and then left. The doctor got up and pulled the flimsy door closed. “Feeling better?”
“Can I get you anything else?” She shook her head. “When you feel you are up to it, can you tell me what got you so upset?”
Soni took another sip. “I couldn’t sleep, so I went for a walk.” She hesitated and took a deep breath. “My brain was like in a fog, and there was this, whispering, or something like whispering. Anyway, I thought I would go up to the bridge . . . I guess. It’s like, I was coming in and out of . . . I don’t know, blackouts or something. I wound up in the airlock and I don’t know why I was there. I don’t know how I got there. Then I . . . I was ready to . . . I was about to close the inner lock and blow the outer door!” She broke down. A shudder ran through Dr. Knight. She patted Soni’s back. This is not good, she thought.
Commander Gila sat in the conference room with Dr. Knight, Baxter, and Jones. Severe yellow light seeped into the walls leaving harsh shadows pantomiming the actions of the crewmembers. “That’s what she told me,” Dr. knight said. “I am not sure how . . . I mean we all had full psych evaluations for this mission.”
“Somebody must have missed something,” Jones said.
“Ya think?” Baxter said.
“Do you think she was trying to commit suicide, or is something else going on?” The Commander asked.
“I would find suicide hard to believe,” the doctor said. “We all know her. We have worked with her for months both on Earth and on the ship. I haven’t seen any signs of depression. What troubles me more is this whispering she reported.”
“She’s hearing voices?’ Gila asked. “Is she schizophrenic?”
The doctor shook her head. “No . . . I don’t know . . . I can’t tell at this point. We are going to have to keep her monitored. I want someone else with her at all times.”
“For how long?” Gila asked.
“Impossible to tell at this point. We are going to have to see if she can come out of this . . . this, whatever it is.”
“We are coming up to orbital insertion around Titan in five days,” the commander said. “Then we have the landing to consider. We are going to be extremely busy. If we lose Soni and someone else to babysit her, that means we are down two crewmembers.”
“I can’t tell you what is going to happen with her. Maybe she will snap out of this and be fine by then, but if not, you are going to have to deal with it. We have no way to lock her up so someone is going to have to be with her. Keeping her occupied might help. I would suggest moving her to B shift and having her assume her duties in Environmental Engineering, but have Simpson paired with her. I will keep an eye on her during her sleep cycle. Unless you have a better idea.”
“Yes, okay” Gila said. “But you are going to have to give Simpson some very specific protocols. And I am going to tell him she is not to be touching critical systems. If she’s not better by the time we get to Titan, I want her sedated.”
No one knew the rhythms of the ship like Commander Gila. It had been two days since the incident with Soni, but still Gila was having trouble sleeping. There was a dissonance, a string that was wound too tight. Something was not right. He told himself that the incident with Soni had made everyone jumpy, but he wasn’t sure that was all there was to it. They had enough to worry about with their mission to Titan. A thousand things could go wrong: the orbit, the landing, the set-up. When they got to the surface, they might not be able to find the right kind of substrate, terrain, or resources. The early unmanned missions had looked promising, but robotic mapping could only tell you so much. The first proto colony on Titan carried responsibility. If they could not get a solid foothold on the moon, future missions, already in the pipeline, would be scrubbed. The colony would have to be abandoned, but, more importantly, he though, we would have to go home. The return trip would not be a short three-week journey, accelerating and decelerating at .2 G, like the one out had been. No, with the hadron fuel nearly spent, they would have to rely on the old burn and coast method. The trip home would take three years, and it would be in freefall all the way. Nobody wanted that.
Something felt wrong. Gila listened to his ship. The sound of the air circulator was so omnipresent that it had become invisible. When he listened for it, he could hear it. It was normal. The vibration of the ship was normal. Even the smell was normal. Like the sound from the air circulator, the slight pressure on his back from deceleration that mimicked gravity went nearly unnoticed. But when the inertia changed direction he sat up at once. Now there was no question. Something was very wrong. There should be no course correction here. He jumped out of bed and for the first time in a long time, misjudged the light gravity and careened into the ceiling with the back of his head. Cursing he threw on his jump pants and moved into the hall. Others were spilling out from their pods having also felt the course change. He went up the chute and veered left to the bridge. Baxter was at the con. “Baxter, what’s going on!” No answer. “Baxter!” inertia suddenly changed again and Gila was slammed into a wall as the ship began to tumble. “Baxter!”
“What? Hey!” Baxter said as he too began to tumble into the wall. “What’s going on?”
Gila could hear the other crew members yelling. He found a seat back to use as a handhold. He pulled himself forward. Baxter’s flailing leg was in his way. He pushed it aside and pulled himself into the chair. He fumbled with the controls, making the tumble worse at first, then it began to subside. When it was finally stabilized, he looked back at Baxter, a heap on the floor. Baxter looked back at him, uncomprehending. Then through quivering lips he said, “I . . . I don’t know what happened. It was me. It was all me! I don’t know why I did that. I . . .I don’t know . . .”
Gila touched the dat on his wrist. “Dr. Knight to the bridge.”
This time the conference room was full. All the crew was there except for Baxter who was sedated in Sick Bay. Even Soni was there. She felt self-conscious. She kept her eyes on the table and fidgeted with the rim of her coffee cup. She didn’t want to see the look in the eyes of the other crewmembers, wanting an explanation that she could not give. Dr. Knight was telling everyone what Baxter had told her. It sounded eerily familiar. For the first time since Soni had known Dr. Knight, the small woman looked shaken.
“. . . then, he said, that it was like he was detached. He saw himself changing course, like he was watching someone else do it.” Dr. Knight continued. “He said it seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do at the time. He also . . . said he heard whispering.”
Soni looked up from the table. “Whispering.” Now there was no avoiding it. Everyone in the room was looking at her.
“What exactly did the whispering tell you to do?” the doctor asked Soni.
“I have no idea. I couldn’t hear it clearly, in fact, I wasn’t sure I had heard it at all.” She started to choke up but determined that she was not going to cry. No.
“So, the voices . . . the whispering did not tell you to go out the air lock?” Commander Gila asked.
She tried to play back that part of the experience in her head. Just that part—not later when she-- But it was all fuzzy. “No. At least, not that I could tell.” It was like she could not quite grab hold of it. It was like a dream you try to remember after waking up, but it slips away.
“Sounds like hypnosis,” Simpson said.
Peters chuckled and shook his head. Soni did not see what was amusing. Peters could be a jerk sometimes. “But who would the hypnotist be?” the commander said. “And to what end?”
“If someone wanted the mission to fail,” Simpson said. “Someone could have implanted these suggestions before we left Earth.”
“Again,” Gila said. “To what end? I don’t see anyone benefitting from the failure of the mission.”
“Also, there are limits to what you can do through hypnosis,” Dr. Knight said. “It is very hard to force someone to hurt themselves through hypnosis.”
“Then what?” Gila said.
“I . . .don’t know. Maybe there is an infection or some environmental factor. Soni, I’d like you and Baxter to sit for a brain scan and some blood work.”
Soni sat in the cold plastic chair in the med bay. After drawing a blood sample, Dr. Knight pulled Soni’s dark medium-length hair back from her face and clipped it. “Do you see the yellow dot on the far wall?” the doctor asked. Soni nodded. “Good. Focus on the dot. Try not to move your head.” Dr. Knight ran the small scanner around Soni’s scalp, seeming to spend extra time in back. Soni watched the dot. It seemed to vary in consistency, growing darker and then lighter. Was it supposed to do that? It darkened again and a large millipede crawled out of the dot and onto the wall. Soni inhaled and sat up straighter. Her muscled tensed up. “What is it?” the doctor asked.
The doctor turned and looked at the dot. “What?”
Soni realized that Dr. Knight did not see it. Perhaps she really was going insane. Maybe she should just admit to it now and be locked away for the safety of the ship. But then, the doctor did a double take. She looked back at the spot and cocked her head as if she had seen something, then, shaking her head turned back to Soni. Whatever the doctor thought she had seen was dismissed from her mind now. There was a crawling sensation on Soni’s upper arm. She would not look. If she did not look, it wasn’t there. She tried to focus on the spot on the wall. The millipede crawled back into the spot and vanished. She realized that Dr. Knight was waiting for an answer. “Um, it was nothing,” Soni said. “My eyes were playing a trick on me; I thought . . . I thought the spot had turned green. Was there anything wrong?”
“With my scan. Did you find anything wrong?”
“No,” the doctor said while putting the scanner in a drawer. “Nothing that I could see with either you or Baxter.” That was more troubling still. If there was nothing physically wrong with her, then it must be mental. Soni wondered if she was truly losing her mind. But it didn’t make sense that Baxter would be losing his mind at the same time. Did it?
The doctor having dismissed her, she returned to her cabin. It was almost her sleep shift. Too many thoughts were running through her brain, like a thousand voices at an amusement park. At least these voices were all hers. She had never thought of herself as neurotic before this mission. She reminded herself that she beat out over 200 applicants for her position on this ship. Isolation training and everything else the shrinks could throw at them, meant that she was ready for this. But what if the shrinks got it wrong? What if there was some lurking, festering weakness hiding deep within, concealed from view like a virus? What if Baxter had a similar weakness, hidden so deep down the well of his psyche that no one could see it, until deep space let it out?
No. She had to stop thinking like this. She had to calm the self-doubting voices. She crawled into her bed kit. She closed her eyes and focused on a mantra. Meditation would help. Every time a stray thought came her way, she repeated the mantra silently, trying to let the mantra be the only thought. After about ten minutes, the whispering began. Indistinct muttering. No. Yes, it was there. Mantra, mantra, mantra! She could not block it out. Her heart was racing. The thought that she might do something to herself or to the ship, terrified her. She looked at the tab on her wrist to call for help, but she could no longer distinguish the controls. She poked at it randomly to no effect. She fought the urge to walk into the corridor. She tried to scream, but her voice only came out in a soft mumble, echoing the whispering. She had more control over her hands. In the drawer next to her bed was some electrical cable. She pulled it out and wrapped one end around a bulkhead post knotting it securely. Muttering, whispering, was that a word? No; don’t go outside! She suddenly found herself mid-stride, almost to her door. She dashed back to her bed, grabbed the other end of the cable and wrapped it around her wrist, pulling it tight. If she lost circulation to her wrist, so be it. She found herself unconsciously unwrapping it. Soni slapped herself, rewrapped it again and tied granny knot after granny knot. That wouldn’t be enough. She rummaged around the drawer until she found some stat glue. She globbed some on the knot around the post and more around the knot for her wrist. Her range of motion was now a couple of feet. She felt herself going; she was slipping away. There was one more thing she had to do. She went to the drawer and pulled everything out that could cut the cable or hurt herself and tossed it out of reach. Then she lost herself.
Commander Gila sat in the darkened bay, staring at the transmitter. He thought about what he would say to mission Control. This was a conversation that ideally needed to happen in real time, but that was impossible. It would take 70 minutes for his message to reach Earth, and then, after they figured out how to respond, it would take another 70 minutes for the call back. He’d better get it right the first time. He began the transmission.
Hi Sam. Well things are not going splendidly up here. Our problems with Baxter and Soni have not gone away. Soni had an episode early this morning. The doctor found her. She had tied herself to a bulkhead to keep from doing harm to herself or the ship. The doc said she was pretty terrified. When questioned, Baxter said that he had heard whispering too about the same time. Peters accidentally crashed into Baxter in the ladder chute, and Baxter said he had no recollection how he came to be there. As you can imagine this has the whole crew kind of spooked. The short-term problem is, what to do with Baxter and Soni to keep them from being a danger to the ship. Since we don’t have any kind of brig on board, I decided to lock them in the lander and disable all onboard controls. Soni understood, even seemed grateful, but Baxter wasn’t too happy. If the mission proceeds and we land on Titan, we will have to sedate them. Which brings me to the next question, the big question: do we continue with the mission. Do we send the lander down and set up a preliminary base on Titan? It’s a hell of a thing to come this far and not finish, but with two crew members as dead weights around our necks, that makes it hard. We are going to have to make some decisions pretty quickly. I will be awaiting your response.
Gila pushed back from the transmitter. Now we wait. He went down to the galley to get himself some coffee. As he started to drink, he heard whispering. “Who’s there?” The galley was deserted. He stuck his head out of the door and looked both ways down the corridor. Nothing. But there was still whispering, words indistinct, but they seemed like words. Dr. Knight appeared in the corridor in front of him. She looked even smaller than usual, slumped and ashen. She swallowed and said, “I am hearing whispering.”
Gila put his tab up to his ear. Nothing coming from that. The whispering got louder, and he heard a distinct word. “Away,” he said.
“You heard it too.” The doctor seemed slightly relieved. “Where is it coming from?”
Gila touched the tab. “Bridge, are we receiving any transmissions?”
“No,” Jones reported back. “But . . . Commander, I am hearing something . . .whispering.”
Gila fought the urge to panic. He was losing control of the ship and he did not understand why. He tried to think, but there did not seem any way to think his way out of this. There was a loud bang. A shudder reverberated through the ship and an alarm sounded. Dr. Knight gasped. Gila steadied himself on the corridor wall. “What was that?” he said into the tab.
“I don’t know,” Jones replied. “I think . . . Oh my God; I think the airlock hatch has been blown.”
Gila pulled himself quickly up the chute. When he got to the airlock Jones was already there, looking out the port. Gila pushed him out of the way. The hatch was blown. He went to the bridge and accessed the ship’s monitors. Jones and Dr. Knight were looking over his shoulder. He replayed the feed from the last few minutes from the airlock. They saw Peters calmly enter through the inner door. He closed it and went to the control panel. He hesitated, looked around, started to back away, and then stopped. He returned to the panel. Opened up the emergency compartment and pressed a switch. There was an instant of vapor, and then nothing. The airlock was empty.
His heart racing, Gila could hear Jones ragged breath. He realized that the rest of the crew save for Soni and Baxter had joined them on the bridge. There was crying, but all the while the steady cacophony of whispering continued. Whispering. Gila could distinctly make out the words “Go . . . away.”
Everyone looked around frightened. They had obviously heard the words too. “Jones,” the commander said as calmly as he could. “Let’s get on this right now. Plot a course for a slingshot around Saturn. We’re going home.
In that instant, the whispering stopped.