Doctor Dubicki placed her hands under the evaporator, rubbing them together until the pale skin was perfectly dry. In the mirror she arranged the shock of white in her otherwise dark-gray hair and smiled at the woman looking back at her. Considering her age, she was holding up rather nicely, if she did say so herself. She’d even caught a few men checking out her figure when her back was turned, whenever they thought she wasn’t looking.
That was one thing about her no one seemed to realize: she was always looking. It was a professional habit, built from years of analyzing patients. As the main Psych Doctor on board, she had to notice every detail about the person across from her. Even the slightest disturbance in their thinking, magnified under the stresses of travel and confinement, could have disastrous results if left untreated. They’d learned that lesson the hard way, though no one spoke of those early days much anymore. Most people preferred to forget the details of the past and instead focus on the parts they liked. She brushed the memory aside, adjusted her white uniform, and left the bathroom behind, the light clicking off behind her.
Seated back at her desk, she checked her screen for new messages. There was one blinking notification to be opened, though it would have to wait. Her next appointment was on its way, and this was one that couldn’t be postponed. There were people waiting on her analysis.
A black beetle walking across the surface of her desk caught her eye. She reached out and crushed it under her thumb, feeling the gentle, wet crunch of its shell popping under her finger. Right on time, the door chime sounded softly. She scooped the dead beetle away, knocking it to the floor before wiping her hands clean. And she had just gone through the trouble of washing them.
“Enter,” she said calmly.
Peace Officer Kash appeared in the dilated door, holding his prisoner by the arm. “Hey, doctor. You requested this one to be released to you.” Kash nodded to Desanto, who looked less than enthusiastic to be there.
“Yes, thank you so much for bringing him.”
“You want me to stick around and make sure he behaves?”
“No, I think you’ve done plenty,” she replied with a smile.
Kash sniffed. “Suit yourself.” He glanced at Desanto one last time before leaving, looking disappointed that he couldn’t exercise some of the more violent tendencies Doctor Dubicki had noticed in the man. But that wasn’t important just then, because Desanto was standing in her doorway, his body like a wound-up spring ready to release. He could just as easily run away as step forward into her office.
It was very possible she’d let Kash leave too soon.
“I understand you’ve had a rough day,” she offered. Desanto refused to look at her, choosing to stare at the Van Gogh on her wall. It was an original, a thing she took great pride in, even if it technically didn’t belong to her. “Please,” she said, “come in.”
Desanto didn’t move. She took a breath, knowing her work was cut out for her.
“You can try punching and kicking your way out of here, but I can promise you won’t make it far. Or,” she said, “you can come in and talk, and I can help you understand what’s happening to you.”
Desanto finally looked at her. His eyes burned with questions as well as the bloodshot, slightly swollen look of a man who had met the angry end of a peace stick. Just then James Crick passed by, glancing into the doctor’s office as he walked up the hallway toward his own. “Greetings, Allcleric,” she called out. He simply nodded back with the usual disapproving look on his face. When the Allcleric was gone, she turned back to Desanto. “Don’t mind him, he’s just quiet around people he believes are going to burn in Hell.”
Desanto still hesitated, but he finally took a step forward. Then another. Once he was completely inside the office, the door automatically shut behind him, causing him to flinch like a man being attacked.
“I promise I don’t bite,” she said. Then, motioning to the chair across from her, she added, “My name is Doctor Dubicki. Rina, if you prefer.”
He didn’t move.
“You were hiding from me, weren’t you? When I came to the Medbay? I thought I heard something. I suppose I should have figured it out when I found the door open.” He simply stared back at her, his hands balled into fists. There was such anger in him. If only he knew the truth, that she’d been quite aware of his hiding, and had used his little escape attempt to observe and test him, to see what he would do, how he would act under stress. But she didn’t dare tell him. For the time being, at least, his anger was focused on other passengers, and she would make sure to keep it there. “The use of a peace stick was unfortunate, but you must understand, the Officers had no choice. That was the most force any of them have used in a very long time.” She leaned in. “Though I can’t say Officer Kash isn’t always looking for a reason.”
Still, he gave her nothing. But that wouldn’t do. She knew how crucial he was for the future of the ship. He was simply too important to leave alone.
“Many people run at first, you know. Some of them even fight. If I remember correctly, Mrs. Slavkov kicked so hard she knocked a tooth-”
“How did they find me,” Desanto asked. Finally, the silence was broken. Even if it took on an aggressive tone, the first step was always the hardest. The rest was just like falling.
“You were in Central Park, not exactly hiding in a dark corner.”
“They knew where I was before I did. Were they following me?”
She held up her arm and pulled her sleeve down, showing him the slightly raised bump under the skin of her forearm. “Trackers. Everyone here has one. They’re mostly for drifters and lost children, but occasionally, they’re for runners.”
Desanto found his own raised circle of flesh. He scratched at his arm uncomfortably, as if he wanted to claw the chip out with his fingernails. She remembered how much it used to itch in the beginning. Like a mosquito bite that wouldn’t quiet down. Slowly, he approached the chair across from her and sat down.
Progress. She took a moment before continuing. “I see your memory is as bad as Doctor Hannigan said it was. Do you remember anything from before the Medbay?”
Desanto thought on it, then looked up at her. “I remember dying.”
“Ahh. They tell us we’re not supposed to remember entering Cryosleep, that the drugs block our perception of the process, but some of us remember just the same. It can be a painful memory, but at least it’s a memory.” She studied his face. “Anything else you can think of, maybe a person you can recall? A friend, or a co-worker?” She paused. “An enemy?”
Desanto shook his head.
“Then it seems you have a lot to catch up on. But I should warn you, it can be stressful to remember too much of yourself at once. There’s a saying around here, ‘A flood of memories can drown anyone.’ For now it’s best for you to ease into things. Take it slow. That being said, do you have any questions for me?”
“Where am I,” he asked without hesitation.
“That would be the one to work toward.” She smiled weakly. “Start smaller.”
He rubbed his face in frustration. “How about who I am?”
“That’s a good start. Simple, personal. Your name is Erick Desanto. You’re a Mechanic.”
“A Mechanic,” he echoed.
“Yes. A very talented one, from what I’m told.”
“Okay.” He shifted in his seat, eyes piercing into her. “Okay, now let’s talk about why you drugged and froze me-”
“-About why you thawed me out and sent your thugs after me.” His voice was growing louder and louder. “And after that, you can explain to me why you won’t tell me where the fuck I am. If I’m a prisoner in this place, I at least deserve to know I’m a prisoner. I must have some kind of rights.”
“You’re still angry, Erick, and that’s okay. You’re allowed to be angry.” Doctor Dubicki had a thought. “You know what? There’s someone I want to introduce you to, someone who can explain all of this much better than I can. Is that okay?”
He clenched his jaw. After a moment, he nodded.
“Good,” she said with a smile. Then: “Hello, Sunn.”
“Hello, Doctor Dubicki. How can I help you?” Sunn’s voice replied from seemingly thin air. Desanto looked around for who had spoken, turning in his chair to look behind him.
“Please show yourself to my friend Erick.”
Sunn materialized to her left. The hologram was a play of light suspended on invisible gas, nothing more, but as it formed the shape of the empty man, Desanto pressed back into his chair as if he were witnessing an apparition, the visitation of some unwelcome spirit. When Sunn was solid, or at least gave the appearance of such, he turned to Desanto in the artificial movements of a man with no musculature. “Hello, Erick,” he said.
When Desanto didn’t reply, she spoke up for him. “My friend here has a few questions for you.”
“I’d be happy to answer them.” Sunn’s too-smooth face always reminded her of the clothing store mannequins back on Earth, before they all went under. Lifeless eyes set in such a beautiful face. Desanto looked to her for help, struck speechless at the idea of speaking to the phantom in front of him. It was incredible how much of the man had been lost. Holograms were a given to people those days, as common a thing as they came, yet he looked at one like it was a terror from some distant reality.
“Go on,” she urged, “it’s alright.” Desanto turned back to Sunn, blinking as he found his words.
“Why, uh…why can’t I remember anything from before I woke up?”
Sunn showed his teeth in the approximation of a smile. “Excellent question. Extended sessions of Cryosleep have been linked to high incidences of memory distortion and degradation. Though the effects are typically reversed within four to six hours of revival, some memory loss can continue to be experienced long-term. Also, you have cancer.”
Desanto blinked. “What?”
“His bedside manner is somewhat lacking,” Doctor Dubicki said. Sunn looked at her as if her words held no meaning. Then he continued.
“I found a significant mass in the base of your temporal lobe when you last entered Cryosleep.” An x-ray of what was presumably Desanto’s cancer-ridden brain projected onto her wall. “Upon further testing, the mass was revealed to be a grade four tumor that, if left unchecked, would have stopped your life functions in a matter of months. I was able to reverse the growth of the cancerous cells, as well as regenerate the affected sections of your brain through gene therapy, however there was significant loss of memory function.” The tumor on her wall shrunk in size as the brain around it grew to fill in the space it left behind.
Desanto straightened up, attempting to regain himself. “Hold on- my memories are gone?”
“Incorrect. Some of your memories are gone, while others are simply inaccessible for retrieval at your brain’s current rate of function. In time, with the proper stimulation and with sufficient healing of neural pathways, there is a strong possibility that some of those blocked memories will return.”
Numbers flashed in Sunn’s eyes. “Forty-eight point one percent,” he concluded.
“Fifty-fifty.” He looked over at the doctor. “You’re telling me there’s a fifty-fifty chance I’ll never remember who I am because you hacked my brain up into pieces.”
Doctor Dubicki folded her hands. “He saved your life. What Sunn did was nothing short of miracle medicine.”
“If he’s so advanced, how did he not pick this up earlier?”
“Mechanics are exposed to a great deal of radiation in the course of their Vocation, which is why they’re always assigned shorter rotations. Healing and regeneration, they’re half the reason we enter Cryosleep in the first place. Normally the damage is much smaller, and easier to fix.”
Desanto thought about all that he’d heard. “It can come back?”
“Of course. But don’t let that bother you. As of this moment you’re in perfect health. You can go back to living your life, and to being a great help to the people here.”
“I don’t know those people.”
“But they know you.” She smiled. Desanto was quiet again, then he turned to Sunn.
“I have another question.”
“I would be happy to answer it.”
“Good, because I want to know where I am.”
“Erick,” Dubicki warned.
“I want to know where I am,” he repeated, this time louder, “and no one will tell me.”
She knew he wasn’t going to drop the subject until he got his answer. “Go on then,” she said to Sunn.
“That question has a broad range of answers. Can you be more specific?”
Desanto stood up from his chair, went to the wall and slapped his hand against it. “This. This place. What is it? Where are we? Where the fuck are we?”
Sunn nodded, noting the man’s anger but choosing to ignore it. “This place is called Ark One. It is a deep space vessel built-”
Sunn tilted his head. “I do not understand the question.”
“Please, Erick, you need to slow down,” Dubicki once again insisted. “You’re only stressing yourself-”
Surprising even Sunn, Desanto suddenly went to the door, waiting only long enough for it to dilate before he ran out of the room. Doctor Dubicki knew where he was headed. He must have seen it on the way to her office. She took her time exiting her office and joining Desanto down the hall.
The open area, fitted with comfortable chairs and plenty of flowering trees, served as a gathering place for those people waiting to be seen by either the Psych Doctors or the Allclerics. For others it was a place to relax after an intense session. She found him exactly where she knew she would- trying his damnedest to activate the long window port on the far wall, its triple-paned glass blocked on the outside by an eight-inch-thick metal shield.
“Open this up,” Desanto said, punching the control panel, trying every button. She approached him, keeping a few feet between them.
“We can’t just open windows whenever we want, Erick. There are dangers to consider.”
Sunn reappeared to her right. “My scans indicate no immediate danger,” he said. Doctor Dubicki sighed, not at all grateful for his help.
“Okay. Open it up.”
There was a whir and a click as the pressure seal disengaged. The ten-foot-long metal shield hummed as it rose up to reveal the void beyond.
Desanto stood back and stared into space, those billions of candles burning distantly in the emptiness. His mind reeled, his legs wobbly. Ironically, the reflection in the glass was just as much a mystery to him as the space beyond it.
“Where are we going,” he asked softly, the air knocked out of him. She walked up next to him, nearly breaking code by putting her hand on his shoulder before deciding otherwise.
“To know where you’re going, Erick, you need to remember where you’ve been.” He turned to her, finally listening. “Tell me- do you remember Earth?”