This was a mistake, I think. There’s no such thing as Beast, and even if there is, it’s not going to do what they say it will. This whole thing is going to be a waste of time and money, and you will emerge from the other side no wiser, no happier, no richer.
Not that I needed smart pills to tell me that.
Pull yourself together. You signed up for the trip knowing damn well the destination and the path it might take to get there. No sense screaming about it now. That’s what cowards do. Quitters. Imbeciles. You know who you are and you know why you’re here. Now shut up and calm down.
The pep talk helps. Some. What helps more is closing my eyes and blocking out the sound of the world and taking a deep breath.
After some early misadventures in substance abuse, I learned that locking on to immutable facts and goals makes it easier to ride out most anything unpleasant. I’d come to fear who I was, who I became when I was out of my right mind the things I would say and do. So I instilled into my brain the will not to do them anymore. Like a Hindu or a Buddhist with a mantra, I would repeat what I knew to be true (actually true, I mean. Not true like “the illegal drugs I’ve purchased from a shady criminal are causing me harm and there’s no way I could have predicted this” true) over and over until that truth becomes as much a part of my being as my sense of humor, my irrational hatred of jelly over jam, my handedness.
A proper mantra helped make parts of yourself more permanent, and that’s a valuable thing in an ephemeral world. Like a patch correcting a crippling bug in a computer program, the drunken shenanigans and the high nonsense ceased.
The awkward social aspect of it, I mean. The calls and messages to people who didn’t want to talk to me at hours when they didn’t want to be woken up. The fights picked with strangers. The run-ins with authority. That all tapered off. The actual shenanigans endured, of course.
Staring into the mirror of that tiny cramped shuttle bathroom feels like the first stages of a bad trip, and so a mantra is called for. I whisper one to myself.
“I am Chad Studlu. I am going to the Meadows. I have no past and my future is yet unwritten. I am completely and utterly free. I am out of my fucking mind on semi-illegal drugs and the complimentary cocktails my boys and I have been getting from the flight attendants, but that’s okay.
“In seventy-two hours’ time, I will be happy at last.
“Or possibly dead in a puddle of my own liquefying organs.
“Or maybe just on a shuttle back to Earth, with bloodshot eyes and a hangover fit to kill a gorilla.
“But it’ll definitely be one of those three. Of that I can be certain, and certainty brings with it optimism, and optimism keeps you alive.
“So let’s call it win-win-win.”
I splash some water on my face and check my eyes. Mild dilation, a little bit bloodshot, but nothing too bad. Nothing that couldn’t be explained away by being your average intoxicated passenger on a shuttle to the Meadows. Nothing that would scream, “Hey! This guy’s up to something! Detain him!”
It might whisper, “Hey, this guy’s weird. Don’t interact with him,” but that’s fine. Preferable, even. Who wants to interact with strangers in public places? Ugh. Strangers. Public places. Ugh.
I take one last look in the mirror and mutter, “Good enough.” I throw open the door of the restroom, slam my head into the frame as I step outside, say “Fuck!” a little too loudly, and make my way back to my seat.
The flight attendant who’d been trying to coax me out of the bathroom is standing over my friends, heatedly debating something. The synth is an androgynous model, but leaning towards feminine. It’s stick thin with a dusty yet somehow pallid complexion, hair bleached into nothingness and then dyed baby pink and baby blue. The color of its eyes are indeterminate in the dim light of the shuttle, alternately blue and green. My guess is that whoever’s piloting the synth used to be a teenage girl at some point long ago. Now they’re reliving their favorite years in an artificial body while their old one of meat and bone and viscera is resting in a jar full of nutrient-rich jelly somewhere.
But then, they could be anyone. That’s the beauty/main selling point of a synth frame, after all: if you can afford it, you can inhabit whatever body you think you were meant to inhabit and have it designed however you like. Once upon a time back on Earth, I’d found myself in a shared cab with a synth that had the body and hair of Marilyn Monroe and the face of a bird-eating tarantula. Tolerance be damned, climbing into an automated cab with a stranger that looks like they could literally suck the life out of you is terrifying.
“Well, one of you is going to have to go in there and get him,” the synth says in a voice like the buzzing of flies and the breaking of glass and the cracking of a boy going through puberty. The soothing neutral tones from earlier were gone along with the synth’s patience. “We’re going to be docking in ten minutes, and it’s not safe to have someone out of their seat during the process. That’s when 95% of all injuries occur.”
“What?” Googe says. “He’ll bump his head? That’s fine. We won’t even be able to tell the difference.”
The flight attendant crosses her-its arms. She-it is just about to say something else when I slide past her-it and try to squeeze into my seat. “Wow. Great friends, huh?” I say with a wink.
She-it dosen’t return the smile. She-its arms remain crossed. “And how are you feeling, Sir?”
“Me? I feel great. Why?” The answer’s instinctual. Careless. I’m supposed to be sick. So much for the nootropics. They’re either not working or they can’t fix carelessness, and what good is a drug that can’t fix carelessness? “Oh, I mean, ‘I feel better.’ Still got a bit of an upset stomach. But it feels like a swallowed a tennis ball instead of a bowling ball, which is an improvement. But still less than optimal. But better.”
The synth says nothing. Her-its eyes are black now, and I wonder if they’ve changed color to reflect a darkening mood, if the shuttle’s lighting has changed in preperation for docking, or if I’m just imagining the whole thing. “Parasites?” I offer with a weak smile.
The flight attendant grunts and walks away to either attend to other, less irritating passengers or else prepare her-itself for the docking procedure. I watch them go for a moment to make sure that I’m in the clear, then I let myself fall into the cheap padded seat of the shuttle.
“Where the hell have you been?” Erb says. I don’t bother to look at him. I don’t have to. I don’t need to see the his eyebrows knitted together underneath his tousled hair, see the frown on his face to know that he’s irritated with me. I can hear it in his voice.
And even if I couldn’t, it’d still be a safe assumption. He’s usually irritated with me. “In the bathroom,” I mutter. “Parasites. Tapeworm. Hookworm. Earthworm.”
“You do not have parasites.”
That draws my attention. I turn to look at him, equal parts outrage and hurt playing across my face. “I might!”
Erb snorts. The discussion ends. It wasn’t a real point of contention; just a short sparring match to keep our wits quick, our tongues sharp. The kind of interaction that had defined all of our friendships for as long as we’d all known each other. Some of us are better at it than others, but we all know how to play the game.
Silence reigns for a few moments before Googe clears his throat. “We’re going to the Meadows,” he mutters under his breath. “Shouldn’t the attendants be hot?”
“We didn’t pay for hot,” Erb replies. He’s got his eyes shut and his head back and his hands folded neatly on his lap.
“What are you talking about? That synth didn’t look like Helen of Troy to you?” I ask.
“That synth didn’t look like a woman at all.”
“You must have a genetic immunity to the pheromones.”
“He’s messing with you,” Papa Chub says. He’s looking out the window watching the station grow larger and larger.
“What pheromones?” Googe asks. Windows are a strange luxury on what is, admittedly, a budget shuttle.
“There are no pheromones,” Erb says. Most passenger shuttles would have an array of cameras on the outside and individual LCD screens for people to look at if they wanted to see what’s going on outside them.
“They deliberately hire androgynous synths and dunk them in pheromones to make them seem like whatever the person observing them wants them to be,” I say with a smile. Most of the time there’s nothing to see because, you know, vast cold emptiness of space.
“That’s bullshit,” Googe says uncertainly. Generally only luxury liners have windows, preposterously thick glass things made out of silica and aluminum, ion-treated for strength, loved and hugged everyday for the self-confidence to stand up to micrometeors.
“Of course it is,” Papa Chub sighs. “He’s messing with you.” Nothing says luxury like unnecessary expense and danger.
I snort. “I’m just saying, I know they look like whatever, and I see it, but my body’s telling my brain I’m seeing curves and legs and pouty lips and my brain goes, ‘Yeah, okay.’”
“And you can be immune to that?” Googe asks.
“He’s messing with you.”
I force a serious expression onto my face and nod my head with all the solemnity of a doctor diagnosing cancer. “Lose the genetic lottery and you can be immune or susceptible to anything. You should probably see a doctor, man.”
“He’s messing with you.”
I turn to look at Papa Chub, a smirk on my face. “What? You’re telling me you don’t see Whitney? Chloe? Jessica?”
He frowns. “Of course not. And I definitely don’t see Helen of Troy,” he says. His words hang in the air and after a moment he turns to face me, a sneer to answer my smirk. “I see ________.”
A burst of static comes out of Papa Chub’s mouth. His lips move, and they must be forming real worlds, but my brain isn’t processing the sound into anything meaningful. For the second and a half that it took Papa Chub to say whatever it was he had said, my brain had backfired completely, like a computer rendering white noise instead of loading a file, like a movie with a clumsily but effectively censored scene. Papa Chub’s sneering, but Monk and Googe and even Erb are looking at me, their faces masks of concern and surprise.
I need to say something. I need to react. The game demands a response.
I chuckle, a low and horrible noise. My performance-enhanced brain tells me the noise sounds like something’s caught in my throat. Like maybe I’m choking. Or retching. I’m not of course, but there’s a sickness to the noise. That’s fine. Good. No one wants to mess with someone diseased. “Well, shit. I don’t have a comeback for that.”
I give another laugh, a single sharp bark, and I relax in my seat, a cynical smile on my face, my overstimulated mind trying to decide if that was an appropriate response, if it was so inappropriate that someone’s going to confront me about it later, trying to figure out what the hell Papa Chub had actually said, trying to figure out why my brain had been unable to process it.
Our group is quiet. The air is still except for the sound of the shuttle’s engines, the chattering of the other passengers, the beeping of the instrumentation panel in the automated cockpit. Whatever Papa Chub said, my reaction brooked no further discussion. Monk hums and taps his foot and looks around the cabin with unfocused energy. Erb has his head back and his eyes closed. Papa Chub casts another glance my way and then stares out the window.
Googe speaks. “Wait, so do I need to go see a doctor or what?”
Word Count: 184 (Just an average of 1,845 words a day to go!)