by Joseph Witkowski

I’m staring at a dead man’s face, David thought, I’m staring at a dead man’s face and I don’t care. It just lies there, still as a glacier, no inflection, no fake gentile smiles or subcutaneous pantomimes. And yet it speaks to me, and I hear the voice of this creature pass through sewed lips, I can’t see his eyes. I can’t tell if he’s lying because they’re frozen shut and the slivers of icicles on each follicle of eyebrow grow thicker which every passing unused second.
“David, David please talk to me, I need you to talk.”
David sat with his hands gripped tightly around his face, his elbows propped up on his knees as he sat next to cryo-bed #3. He was feeling sickly having grown slightly underweight for a man of twenty five. He felt his worksuit to be getting even baggier as he shifted his body to relieve a cramp. David was used to three square meals a day, despite their dehydrated texture and plastic aftertaste. He couldn’t remember the last time he ate. This was the first time in awhile he was no longer on schedule, no duties, no work orders, no pain in the ass deck officer. Just he and the next moment. He’d been sitting for hours.
In the wake of an uneasy thought David looked up momentarily toward the computer screen on the station above him, a black screen with a series of numbers flashing to life occasionally as they became ever more complex. It was the only light in the room, the room being a bay just beneath the cockpit housing the cry-chamber. Usually active with every matter of light source and beeping consul at peak volume it presented only darkness, now that the klaxon had been turned off. Now that the emergency lights were disconnected. Now that the last little troll had run under his toll bridge. Now that David finally had a situation he could handle. A trickle of blood ran down on to the monitor screen and sizzled in the static electricity of LCD.
“David?”
Oh, it’s still awake. How do like being awake?, David wanted to continue talking, but decided to let his army stay silent and carry on in his head. How do like it Huh? Not exactly liberating, revelation is rarely ever granted in good spirits and the truth sets no one free. Get used to it, you soulless motherfucker.
The voice which seemed aware of David’s thoughts emanated from a small black circle of mesh, the size of a silver-dollar on the side of the cryo-bed, next to it a panel indicating heart rate, blood pressure, brain wave activity and adrenaline levels. That one had been dancing up and down all day like a lab rat on ephedrine.
“David, I’m scared, I’ve never been more scared, I just want to know what’s going on.”
I wonder what it must be like, a disembodied voice in the abyss, blind, colorless, out of reach and yet still alive. David wiped his forehead with his sleeve, the red juices were spreading, his thoughts growing more angry. No arms and legs to preoccupy the senses, no distractions of corporeality to momentarily extinguish the slow steady pattern of “what the fuck to think of next.” Just the pure fact of what I say, of who is in command. You’re not a button pusher, Doctor, you just wipe us clean and shut us down when we start feeling human.
“David, FUCKING GOD DAVID, THIS IS A FUCKING NIGHTMARE PLEEEEASE.”
“Shut up, shut up whatever your name is, I run things now, the asylum belongs to me, prickleberry,” David finally responded to the strained old voice of his frozen companion. The engineers had programmed the cryo-chamber’s neural nets with each occupant's individual speech pattern and accent, this way the conversation would flow more easily in case of a crisis. David noticed the strange bronchial wheeze that matched the original. That is what Sorenson sounded like albeit filtered through a mile of fiber optics, a pretentious fatherly like voice, sane and determined. Reassurance. Those fucking S.A.C.R. fuckers, David thought, not a penny wasted on their little insane droid janitors.
“Oh thank God David, look, It’s just been awhile, you left and I got scared.”
He seems almost sorry, David thought, a little humility will do that to a man, make him more authentic in the eyes of his fate.
Jesus Christ it’s smells bad in here.
David suddenly snapped back into perceptive mode and looked about the room, in the far corner lay the evidence of the recent display of his moral character, which he was now deeming the strongest of all. A body lay in a hunched-over semi-circle, a pool of blood under a large patch of blue-green fabric spacesuit with a kitchen knife pointing toward him. Tim. David had remembered his full name not that friendship amongst a missile crew is nurtured. It can lead to mutinies. Tim Richardson. David shook his head back and forth as if throwing the noise off his brain like drowned fleas. A lot of clean cut Harvard ex-sport jock types signed on for this kind of job. A zero-gravity volleyball champ senior year, if I recall, than he found religion in Chink hunting. Too bad he wasn’t in better shape, he might have gotten to the Com-Link, he might have signaled Relay Command. Someone down there amongst the 30,000 American and Chinese colonists and maniacs might now know what the hell is going on, why one of their missile sleds on route from Earth was now maximum orbit over the Martian surface tracking life signs and locking targets.”

********

“So, doctor, why the F.A.S. corps? Why take such a high risk job to practice the art of mind fucking when so many Franklin Ave. types get to do it in the comfort of their purloined offices?” David asked, refreshed from a stroll around the engine deck, tight and by the numbers, the way inspection ran every morning, the way the cogs stay oiled and the sprockets taught.
Doctor Sorenson imagined that he was gulping down the last remnants of saliva in his throat. He couldn’t feel it though, he couldn’t feel anything. But he found it easier to think if he imagined the physiological component to every emotion. He had spent the last hour going over what he remembered, Him being suddenly awakened not exactly standard procedure. Standard procedure was very well paced. The lid of the cryo-bed opening, the pain of post-gestational light breaking the hermetic seal of his eyes. A massage, a shower, a hearty meal and report to duty. The three crew members in Stasis were usually never awakened while sleeping. They were frozen, and hibernated for the length of most deep space trips to preserve food and save energy on light and excretion modules. Usually a dreamless second and suddenly your looking out the window of European mountains. This one was quite out of the ordinary though, a creepy male voice,“Good morning doctor, welcome to the end of your life,” followed by some chaotic screaming and the sound of splitting bone. The cryo-beds had a special emergency feature which allowed the occupants to be awakened while still frozen in the case of a crisis, for advise, consul, expertise. None of which seemed up to par for the current state of affairs.
“My father was in the military, he was proud of me when I enlisted. I was proud of myself for awhile” Sorenson answered.
“I’ll bet. I remember some of our sessions together. Now, you are quite the psychotic. So, it’s in the helix, huh? The heart beats a mission, a soldier to the end. I bet as a kid you were one of these wizard children with a culturally biased, social determined I.Q. that was closing in on the 190’s and so they trained you from the start. You felt special but you were an order taker none the less. You followed the blueprints but you resented it and really wanted to splash your toes in the nearest stream and forget that you had a natural propensity for brain-teasing. In the end you wanted to live up to the family name so you enlisted, gritted your teeth and waited to grow cynical and finally enjoy being a ruthless cold sonuvabitch like the rest of us.”
David kicked the side of the white metal tube and watched the blood pressure lines on the monitor spark momentarily. Sorenson couldn’t feel it, but his body could. His body was probably as scared as his mind, both petrified. All he had was the blackness of pre-awareness and the sound of his voice.
“I’m not the one who just killed five fellow officers. Five people.”
“No, but you have no problem with them killing 500,000 people, or a million. If the order is given.”
“That’s the job David. The more willing we are to do it, the less likely it is to happen. It is the psychology of war. That’s what they taught us, and that’s why there has never been a nuclear exchange in our combined lifetimes.”
David leaned over to the interface and whispered, “Don’t speak so confidently, Herr Doctor, the night is young and I’m feeling wasteful.”
“What made you have such a change of heart, David, our sessions always seemed rather low-maintenance. You expressed sadness about the war, about the fear that you’d never see your family again, your daughter. But you knew it was an honorable task. You even were more centered than the rest of the crew.”
“Oh yeah, like Oswald, the boy, the little boy who cried himself to sleep after jerking off three times. There was a nice pick. Got a hand it to those recruitment officers and their keen sense of people. An eighteen year old with the arrogant charge of having his finger on the button for six months and in three weeks he was cracking so hard I found him flying on pracatyn and amytals in the breakroom one night trying to lick his own elbows.
“I didn’t know that David. I only know what you tell me.”
Sorenson was starting to feel his thoughts snaking through brain like minnows. Focus.
“What we are allowed to tell you.” David retorted, “Or what we risk. How many Missile men have seen the inside of foam little rooms, some indefinitely? They don’t release reports on our percentage of melt-downs to the public, National security.” He felt as if each statement lifted another brick of the casket lid and the tears were starting to flow again. “It’s horrifying what they do to us. The things they ask. I think Oswald found his death wonderfully ironic in that relaxing kind of way.”
“David, listen to yourself, listen to the lack of emotion in your voice. I heard what you did to Kate, I heard you when you were taunting her, when you finally turned off her cryo-bed. Is that what you are going to do to me? Are you thinking about it right now?”
“Now you care what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling? I’m feeling something for the first time in a long time and it is beautiful.”
“I care David, I’ve always cared, and now, I am not thinking about myself, or more job, or the terror of the situation that is before me, I am thinking only of what is true, and what is true is that you are not in a rational place right now, David, your emotions and your reason are very gnarled, very worn down and you are under an incredible amount of stress. You think no one cares, no one will sympathize. It’s more responsibility than any one person can handle which s why I am here. If I can relieve that stress, maybe you can start to feel what is going on around you and you can make a real decision, one that belongs to you. Just take a deep breath, look around and admit that you have no idea what to do next and you are scared.”
“FUCK YOU, FUCK YOU I’m scared, I’ve always been scared. I can’t handle this, I can’t handle the idea that I’m supposed to be this buffed and pressed machine that will carry out it’s program regardless of the misery and fucking nothingness that would result and that somehow, in the warped little minds of you, the speech makers, the generals, the fucking patriots that THIS IS ALL OKAY, this is all shit running smoothly. Well I’m not scared anymore . . . . because maybe I’ll just go ahead and make everyone a little bit happier and put their imaginations to rest.”
“Is that what you really want David. Listen to yourself,” Sorenson took a pause and tried to focus, don’t condescend, don’t interrogate, don’t mystify, just be human. “You have reached a critical moral juncture, I understand that, you find the idea of mass genocide appalling, and your conclusions are correct. Fuck it, their are as correct as they ever get. It is horrible that human beings want to kill other human beings, it is mind-numbing to think of the skills and techniques and hardware that goes into it. So why even consider carrying that on. Let’s use this situation to stop things. To make a point-“
“You are so full of ass-saving bullshit and you know it. Don’t even think you can convince me you are on my side, I’m the inventor of my side and I know who’s on it” David let some spittle fall from his mouth as he yelled down at the statuesque face beneath the glass. “They put little ghouls like you on board everyone of these floating ‘bad-days’ to talk us quiet, to keep us ready and willing and to not let us even think for one second about ourselves and our empathy and our capacity for human blah blah, and now you want to be peace and love and let’s make a statement about the horrors of mutually assured destruction. Besides, the moment they find out what’s going on they would let us live long enough to make a statement, they’d blow us out of orbit. No, no one finds out what’s going on up here until it’s too late.”
“Why David, it doesn’t make any sense to kill anyone else, when all you want is for it to stop.”
“Extinction is a nice place to stop, Doctor.”

********

The slow steady hum from inside stasis was finally becoming noticeable to Sorenson, now on his second day of waking hibernation. Most subjects go insane in the fourteenth hour. Too much alone time and the brain begins to implode. He had to stay alert, slick, impervious. He was dealing with a homicidal paranoid delusional at the helm of 450 nuclear warheads. It doesn’t matter how it happened, how security fell apart, how the sessions didn’t reveal this particular eccentricity in his personality. They expect too much of psychiatrists. Like we have a magic can-opener for the skullcap, just have a look inside, take it for a test run, tell you if “Patient # Who” is a well adjusted clock puncher or a leader in times of crisis or the kind of guy who would sexually experiment with their neighbors two year old daughter, or the kind who has to flush his toilet twenty times before she can sleep at night, or the kind that digs a fork into your neck if you look at him funny on a sub-car. The mind is nothing but a constant drive to mutation, desperate to grow in any direction. David always seemed too smart, too sensitive to be a code carrier. In order to launch you had to be a detacher, a steel case. Dear god I can’t stand the sound of my own voice anymore, I just want to go back to sleep. Fuck, why can’t I, just fall asleep and the next time I wake up this may all be over. He won’t do it, he couldn’t. David needs time to think, to reassess over and over until he decides he needs help. He keeps talking to me, he is starting to need it. The walls must be caked in blood out there, god I can’t stand the sight of blood. My father always suspected this about me, that I was limp when it came to the real insides of people which is why I chose the more abstract insides of people. Biology 101-A, patient suffering from severe hypothermia. The number one cause of death by freezing is lack of room. The water inside your cells expand when frozen rupturing the cellular walls. Fuck, concentrate, oh god I want to turn it off, just be quiet, David please, just rehibernate me, and go make up your fucking mind I don’t care anymore. Just keep calm, my name is Gregory Sorenson, I was born Nov-

*******
From the surface of the Martian landscape the orbiting missile sled was barely visible to the naked eye. It floated so slowly it resembled just another star peeking through the haze of the scarlet clouded sky. David sat at the closest window to the gigantic sea of life he’d ever seen. Mars seemed to glow brighter with each passing moment of the orbital decay, as each city settlement came onto the horizon. The architecture was brilliant. American refineries on one side of the planet and the Chinese on the other with a nice ring of nothing in between. Just like Earth, a pissing ground for superpowers and their ego trips across whatever new line in the sand. He remembered the last ten years as a steady crawl of pre-traumatic tension. Waking up to the news of some negotiation failed, some politician insulted, some deficit inflated. Any slight mishap in diplomacy and whole cities would go on alert. A shelter on every corner in every building. Earth had become a madhouse of bored chess players, so why not sign up, why not be out here in the silence of space.
David stopped his pacing in front of the elevator shaft down to the cryo-chamber. Sorenson’s a prick, I should just jettison his waking death into the next galaxy and let him feel a little taste of isolation. I should have just killed him, like Kate, like Martin, . . .oh god . . .my mind.
“Sorenson?”
David had staggered down to the chamber, sleep deprived and shaking, nauseous from the smell of his decomposing crew members. He tapped on the glass and chuckled to himself as he awaited an answer.
“Yes David.”
“How are ya in there?”
“I’m okay, I could use some rest”
“Yeah, I adjusted your adrenaline so that you can’t initiate sleep. I figure you shouldn’t miss out on anything.”
Silence. David walked over to the window of the bed, Sorenson’s face was there, but the frozen pallor of his skin looked desperate to sweat.
“Come on Doc, I wanna another session, I’m feeling talkative. I keep having these dreams that I’m cutting off my mother’s dick.”
Silence
“Hey, you know the only thing I know about you is that you have a father, and an ego, and a tendency to grind your teeth during the Rorschachs. Tell me about yourself. “
Silence
“How about I cut off the feed to your legs, wanna wake up a paraplegic?”
Silence. David strutted up to the tube and jumped on top, standing over his prisoner like a child-king.
“Talk to me or I start getting mathematical. I can erase about a million lives with keyboard. It’s a fractal, Sorenson. Did you know that? The launch code is a fractal. Those little equations about chaos.”
“David.”
“Yeah doc?”
“Have you ever read the Bible?”
“Yes, I have”
“Remember the story of Abraham and Issac”
“Yeah, God asks Abraham to kill his son, but calls it off at the last second to test his faith.”
“The bible is fiction David, it’s a means of expelling human neurosis and culturally acquired morality onto paper, back into the flow, into culture.”
“I’m an atheist"
“So am I. The story is meant to represent something, mirror something in us all. We can all imagine the most evil thing possible. And we can also imagine a necessary reason for doing it: an omnipotent threat, a demand, an unquestionable duty. You have become that voice for yourself.”
“I have.”
“Yes”
“What should I do?”
“Do it, David.”
“What,” Sorenson’s voice sounded different. “Oh, is this reverse psychology, or displacement, what page of the suicide hotline manual are we on now.”
“I’m actually not speaking to you David, this voice you are hearing isn’t mine, it’s yours, it just sounds like me because you need it to.”
David leaped down and put his face up to the black disk that linked him to his companion. “Have you gone crazy, Sorenson, is that it?”
“I’m not Sorenson, Sorenson is dead, heart failure. Look at the read-out, flats across the board.” David looked over at the monitor and saw dead lines. Could he have had a heart attack while I was on the observation deck? David turned back to the interface.
“If you’re dead, than why can I hear your voice.”
“It’s your voice David. I want you to listen to it, very carefully. You know what you have to do. This situation has only one logically end. The end you envisioned when you began this journey. Finish it David, finish what you began.”
The temperature seemed different in the bay, he thought to himself. The missile sled’s orbit must be grazing atmosphere. In thirty-six hours it will be two hundred degrees in here. I really have to talk to Sorenson, It’s getting strange in here, everyone is dead, why is everyone dead?
“Sorenson, I’m a little confused. I can’t feel my skin. I think . . I think I want to go home, maybe if I turn the ship around and burn the rest of the fuel, I can get us back to Earth, and you can talk to the way station, tell ’em it wasn’t my fault. Tell "em I just need some time off. I’m good at my job Sorenson. I protect people. Like I’m trained, I protect us all.”
“You are a beautiful person David. I believe in you, and you have a purpose which is more than most can say. The nation needs to be protected from it’s enemies, and it’s enemies never sleep. But you have been sleeping David, now you are awake and the path is finally clear. Launch, David.
“What, why?”
“Because it is what everyone wants. That’s why this is happening. They wouldn’t have put a mentally unstable person on a Missile satellite unless they knew the most likely result. Why is that David? why would they do that? Everything is going according to plan. Now fulfill your obligation.”
“I don’t want to. I never wanted any of this. I just wanted it stop for a moment. I just kept thinking about it. All those people. Deciding for all those people in a half-second that their lives were now over. It’s crazy.”
“Yes it is, your crew members couldn’t face it, Dr. Sorenson couldn’t face it, but you can, you are finally free to look it in the eye.
“Missile Sled U.S.S. Lexington. This Martian Relay, you have entered orbit off schedule and dripping, what is your status?”
When David heard the overhead intercom he sprung to his feet and looked around him. The cryo-chamber had sprung to life with the sound of computation and rippling light. The monitors which slept in snow now beamed targeting charts, payload status, the launch code sequence growing more and more complex and indecipherable. Everything seemed to shake as he threw his head in all directions.
“Missile Sled U.S.S Lexington, we repeat you are off course, respond or we will be forced to follow protocol.”
“They are going to kill us David.”
David looked down at the cryo-bed in the hopes of finding Sorenson alive and well, he wiped off the frost on the glass canopy to see not the wizened visage of the crew psychiatrist, but his own, asleep. He temples felt like marble as his neck locked in horror. The sleeper opened his eyes revealing blue corneas around black eyes and stared into it’s doppelganger. David leapt up and started to walk backwards. His mind juggling itself. As he crept backward he tried to process what was happening, the ship had realized it was targeted for an attack. It’s auto-defenses were engaging and director lights now burned above the escape pod hatches. David turned suddenly turned to the elevator shaft just as he caught a glimpse of the cryo-bed canopy slowly opening.
“Missile Sled U.S.S. Lexington you have 1 minute to respond, this is your last warning.” The crackle of the Com-Link seemed to harden the severity of the message. David’s mind raced as he stared down at the launch panal.
“Do it David, there isn’t much time, it’s over, launch the missiles and put an end to this way of life.”
The voice seemed part of a choir. He felt the walls go soft as he hurdled over the back of a chair and vomited. The world was coming to an end and he was front row. David lifted his body to the chair and started typing, ignoring the three degrees of heat just added to the ship’s interior, ignoring the rumbling beneath everything man-made, in this case, everything. Ignoring he dead people. Ignoring the thoughts in his head. Duty. The series of numbers on the screen danced with each keystroke and were suddenly replaced by a prismatic spiral, a fractal, a choice.
He sat back and stared out the window as 450 nuclear tipped rockets ripped themselves off the pylons of the ship. Passing the three cruisers that had already launched their missiles at him. Passing the first layer Martian atmosphere. Passing the radar warning nets. Soon there would be light, only light.

*******

Sorenson’s eyes seemed to be burning through the back of his head. He struggled to move but his muscles seemed paralyzed. The only thing his body registered was heat, which seemed familiar in its intensity. He finally pried his lids open and the milk became the crisp outlines of his crew members.
“Good Morning, Doctor Sorenson. Welcome to Mars.
Sorenson looked around to see the inside of the cryo-chamber.
“is this the U.S.S. Lexington” he whispered, his throat raw, the man before him which seemed like a Tim answered.
“Yes, of course. Wow, you don’t handle cryo-sleep very well do you. It’s probably due to the lack of REM. Although every now and then you’re lucky and you get a dream. Makes it worth the pain.”
Sorenson, looked down at his body, everything seemed in place, his mind gaining ground, he was still half way inside the tube and the sensations in his body he immediately recognized as post-hibernation sickness. Except for the hangover.
“Well, lets get you cleaned up and fed, which already achieved orbit and the crew is getting ready to load prep codes. I here from Relay that the Chinese have just installed a satellite in our vicinity and the Top brass is going ape shit, they want everyone at General Quarters by 0:900 tomorrow.”

Sorenson walked the length of the corridor while looking over the crew’s military service history, a little off balance now that he was using his legs for the first time in three years of hyper-sleep. Almost spilling a cup of coffee on his work suit, he rounded a corner and narrowly missed hitting a bulkhead. His office was top deck near the observation tower. As he unlocked the door he peeked behind him our a window to see the Martian landscape framed in black, teeming with the activities of its inhabitants. Above, a hundred war ships buzzed around like fireflies forming pattern after pattern. Terraforming would be starting in a month and everyone back on Earth was waiting for the new transports to start running. He walked into his office and sat down at his metal desk, bare except for a Chinese language chart and a some family photos. He tipped his chair back and let himself be groggy for one last minute, than looked up to see his first session had already begun.
“I’m David Markenson, first shift coder on the missile deck, I’m here for my 0:800 psychological evaluation,” said the young man in the chair before him, hanging his sleepy eyes to the floor.
“Yes, I remember you David, . . .so, talk to me.”

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