This is a short story I wrote a couple of months back. It isn’t the best but I think it’s good to show where I started.
I look out the window as Hitchcock, my friend, my partner, my crew mate drifts off into space alone. Hitchcock. I know he’s alive in his suit, but he isn’t flailing about or trying to get back to the ship because he did this to himself. He looks and sounds so calm as I can hear his voice speaking to no one. We can hear his voice through the speakers everywhere on the ship. The transmission from his helmet to our rocket is crystal clear as he speaks, “No more space ship now. Never was any. No people. No people in all the universe. Never were any. No planets. No stars. I haven’t any hands anymore. Never did. No feet either. No head at all. Only space. Only the gap…”
Poor fool. I shake my head and walk away. Hitchcock’s voice continues but I’m no longer listening. Why should I? It’s the same thing I’ve been hearing for the past couple of weeks. I walk up to the cockpit where I know the other members of the crew have gathered to discuss the ongoing incident. I enter and hear the conversation I’m about to interrupt.
“For God’s sakes, captain! We can’t just leave him out there!” Says a voice I knew to be Jenkins.
“I’m not suggesting that’s what we do! I’m simply stating the fact that Hitchcock was losing it.”
“Can we really blame him though? We’re all a little cooped up in here, ya know?” Asks the rather meek voice of Gonzalez.
“He could absolutely be a danger to us all though. Don’t you see that? He just launched himself into space!”
At this time, everyone fell silent to listen to Hitchcock’s voice coming through the speakers on the ship. “No more body, no more hands. No more head, no more ground… Thoughts. Only thoughts and only the gap.”
“Aw, hell, make him stop!” cries out Samantha Whitman. “That guy’s startin’ to scare the hell outta me.”
Totally ignoring Whitman, Jenkins starts up again, “Look, captain, we have to go out there and get him! He hasn’t drifted that far away yet! We could grab some suits and just… just…” His voice stopped. Clearly, there is some kind of visual signal I am missing out on from standing out in the hall. “Couldn’t we?”
“Alright. Alright… It’ll be very risky, seeing as we were already hit by an asteroid this morning.”
Right at that moment, eerie enough as it is, Hitchcock’s words seem to suddenly have some relevance. “No day, no night, no mornings, no sunsets, no sun, no moon, no water, no Earth…”
The captain listens for a moment before continuing, “We’ll get in our suits, all of us, and we’ll—”
“I’ve heard enough,” I say as I came into the cockpit, startling everyone.
“Clemens! Where the hell did—”
“Look, Hitchcock and I got kinda close over the past couple of weeks. I probably know him better than anyone here.”
“Then you want to save him, don’t you?” asks Jenkins. Gonzalez and Whitman give me expectant looks.
I take a moment before responding. Not for a touch of drama but for the sake of not sounding like a man thinking too quickly and irrationally. “Hitchcock is not the man he used to be and without a psychologist on board, he probably won’t be the man he was ever again. He’s been talking about his extreme disbelief in things for a while now and that meteor that hit us a couple of hours ago caused him to go off the edge.”
Gonzalez begins to speak, “I’m a doctor, but not a psychologist. I may not know what he is capable of, but if he thinks that throwing himself out into space is appropriate behavior, then he really is damned.”
The cockpit is silent for a while. All silent with the exception of Hitchcock’s ongoing soliloquy, “I have memories of people. But people do not exist. Nothing exists except for the mind. I think, therefore I am. That is all. Only thoughts. Only thoughts and the gap. Only thoughts and the void. The void. The void. Nothing. Nothing but the void.”
“For Christ’s sake! Turn that shit off!” yells Whitman. “He’s freaking me the hell out!”
The captain turns it off, evidently making his decision. “God help us all,” he mutters.
I stand at the window after I finished my crappy rationed lunch. Or was it breakfast? There is no way of knowing if there are no days or nights. Hitchcock speaks to me from the back of my mind. He’s out there in that black abyss somewhere. Probably starving and dying as I stand here from the comfort of my spaceship. My real spaceship. Hitchcock didn’t believe in the spaceship anymore. He didn’t believe in anything.
I suddenly notice that someone is crying, somewhere on the ship. I follow the noise and walk into Samantha Whitman’s quarters to find her curled up on her floor. “Hey, hey, what’s wrong?” I ask her as I kneel down beside her.
She looks at me through ashamed, reddened eyes. “I-I… I have to be honest with you.” I nod, hoping my face is sincere. “I… I thought about what Hitchcock said.” I shake my head. “No, no, I know it’s bad, but I can’t help but to think… What if he’s right?”
“Aw, shit, Sam! You know he’s not,” I say, doing my best not to get angry with her.
“No, no, no, but I don’t! How do you know he isn’t right? What if this isn’t real? All we have are our memories and those could be fake.”
“Fake? How the hell could our memories be fake?”
“Think about it. Prove that memories are real. Right now. Just try.”
I sit down now, up against her. The little cabin fills with the sound of our breathing. Truth is, I hadn’t really thought about this before. I’d never taken the time to actually try to prove that my memories existed. Never had I thought that I’d have to.
“You know those androids back on Earth. Those synthetic people?” Not sure where she’s going with this, I nod. “Well, recently, they’ve been becoming more like humans. Exactly like humans, actually. And, see, they sometimes get to have fake memories, so they think that they’re people. Like you and I.”
“But see, that’s what bugs me. What if we aren’t real people? What if we are the androids?”
“That’s crazy talk, Sam. Of course we’re real people. Why would they send androids off into space?”
“Because they aren’t real people with real memories and real loved ones. Because we’re off to colonize another solar system and they don’t want to expend human lives when they can send something less valuable, but just as capable.”
Shit. I hadn’t thought of that before. See? You think you know sooo much, but you don’t. Can’t prove it. Can’t see Earth, can’t prove it ever existed. Shut the hell up Hitchcock. I look directly into Sam’s eyes. Her face is covered in worry. Admitting that I don’t know if our memories are real or not would only corrupt her even more and before I’d know it, she’d be floating aimlessly in space, singing the same song as Hitchcock.
I place my hand on her face, something that I could possibly get in trouble for but to hell with it. “You’re thinking too much, kid. I remember New York as well as you remember New Mexico. You’re just a little messed up after Hitchcock said all that crap. He was just a sad man with a sad background. He was so sensitive after his wife died that he took the meteor crashing into the hull of our ship personally!”
Sam smiles and gives the slightest giggle. I take my hand away from her face now and stand up. I pat her on the shoulder as I leave her cabin.
That same day, I had similar conversations with Gonzalez and, to my surprise, the captain. I told Gonzalez about Whitman’s theory and he had a good laugh about it. His main concern was about the rest of the crew falling victim to the same ideas as Hitchcock. He stressed that he is only a physician and not a psychologist. I said I understood that and we parted ways. I went to talk to the captain and I found him in the cockpit, as usual.
I noticed his face was very grim when I entered. He looked up at me with a kind of disinterest and right then I knew something was wrong. We talked and he confessed to me that he was altogether ashamed of the decision he had made. He believed that Hitchcock was a good man but there was nothing we could do for him. He also confessed that he felt especially guilty because he had shared similar thoughts about reality, even before Hitchcock went nuts. I did my best to convince him that everything we experience is real but ultimately, my evidence fell short.
I left the cockpit feeling defeated until I remembered the philosophy books in the library. The library was entirely digital, but it was full of tens of thousands of books. I read and read and read as fast as I could. Now, I have just finished Descartes’s Discourse On The Method. I thought as much as I possibly could to try and see a flaw with the impossibility of proving the physical world real. That was Hitchcock’s problem.
Suddenly, I’m interrupted in the middle of my reading by an alarm. The same alarm that went off when Hitchcock went out into space. My eyes widen and I sprint up the flights of stairs and go to the airlock. There is a person in there, equipped with a space suit.
“Hey!” I yell, pounding on the door. “Hey! Stop! Get back in here!” I can’t figure out who it is because their back is turned to me. No time, no world, no stars. All that exists is the void! Shut the hell up! “What the hell are you doing?!” I’m screaming now. No ship… Whoever this person is, they can hear me, but still continue to take the steps through the process of opening that second door.
“Please, please come back!” I cry. There was no Earth. No New York. Now space ship once you’ve entered the void. Finally, the space suit finishes the process and the other door opens. It turns to me. I see through the visor who it is…
“I’m sorry, Clemens. You’re just going to have to go on without me. I know you tried your best, but Hitchcock was right. There is no proving that we exist, especially when we don’t.”
“Captain,” I say. My eyes are welling up with water and salt. “Please, sir, please. Just come back in. We can talk about this. We… I… I proved that we exist. I really did.” I really didn’t.
“Bullshit, Clemens. I’m sorry, but Hitchcock was right, son.”
“W-what do you mean?”
“Hitchcock was right and so was Sam. I want no part in this.”
“No part in what, sir?”
“Didn’t Gonzalez tell you?”
I don’t know what to say. I look at him with some dumb expression on my face, shaking my head.
“When Gonzalez was patching up Hitchcock after that meteor struck, he noticed something odd about Hitchcock’s arm. Upon… further inspection, Gonzalez and Hitchcock discovered that Hitchcock wasn’t actually human after all. Therefore, I guess you could say that Sam was right.”
I stand here looking into the face of the sanest captain I’d ever served under. Had I actually served under any other captain? There is no way of knowing. How do I know if this is even real? No arms. No legs. Nothing. Only…
“You see what I see now. I’m sorry. I truly am. You were my second in command, Clemens, but now you’re the captain.” With that, I could tell, he was done. He kept eye contact with me the whole time as he lunged backwards into space. Into nothingness. Into the abyss. Into the gap. Into the void.
I walk back to the cockpit of the ship. How could that have just happened? How could I have spent this whole flight with Hitchcock and be totally convinced of his humanity? Could I be an android? I suppose there is no way of knowing unless… I stop outside of the restroom and see there is a scalpel on the counter probably left by Gonzalez. I look down at my wrist and contemplate.
Three steps away from the cockpit, I stop. Sam! She had to have heard the transmission from the captain. I know she did! I run as fast as I can, tripping and smashing and bundling all the way back towards Sam’s room. I’m nearly there. But suddenly there is a red light flashing in all the corridors. The artificial gravity spasms for a moment, launching me to the ceiling and then back onto the floor with a tremendous pulse. I force myself up, and when I get there, I see there is a man standing before me. Jenkins.
“I’m sorry, Clemens.” I see his eyes are filled with tears. “I heard what the captain said.”
“Jenkins, what’s going on? What the hell happened to the gravity?” I ask as I struggle to get back to my feet.
“I altered it, Clemens. I altered it to increase until it turns this whole goddamn thing into a black hole.”
“Why?!” I struggle to take a step forward, then another. I was to strangle him! This moron’s going to kill us all!
“Because, this isn’t real! Our memories are fabricated nonsense! Nothing of–“
“Jenkins! We have to put the gravity back to normal!”
“–significance. Dammit, Clemens! Don’t take another step.” He raises a little shiny object to his wrist. It’s the scalpel from the bathroom. “We need to know, Clem,” he says.
“NO!” I scream but it’s too late. He pushes and slides, cutting deep and thoroughly. We both watch as thick, red liquid drips and plops down onto the floor.
“Well,” he says, his voice shivering in pain, “That answers that.” He looks at me now with this mad look in his eye. “Now you.” He lifts the scalpel.
“No, Jenkins…” I manage to say through the paralyzing fear.
“I haven’t got much time, dammit! Get over here and we’ll settle this thing. We’ll know! Don’t you want to know?”
“No!” I shout and do my best to lunge at him. There is no way I am going to let him kill me. And no way am I going to let him kill Sam. He slashes at me and nicks my cheek and cuts a part of my ear. But it’s too late, I have his leg. I pull, and he goes down with a crack! The scalpel falls out of his hand and I quickly pick it up. I leave him to bleed only because I don’t have time to help a madman. I have to stop the ship from collapsing.
I get to the cockpit and enter through the door. There is Gonzalez at the chair, as to be expected. However, his hands are tied and Sam stands over him, tears yet again running down her face.
“Sam,” I start but she won’t listen.
“I was right! You heard the captain, I was right!”
“None of this is real. Our memories, our pasts, our existence, our everything. Everything is a lie. A lie!”
I look at Gonzalez who has Sam’s razor blade up to his throat. He gazes into my eyes with fear and if I’m not mistaken, a newfound bravery.
“Sam, it may be true that it’s a lie, but…”
“‘But’ nothing, Clem. It’s over. This ship’s collapsing along with this horrible mission!”
Gonzalez nods. It’s now or never. He bites Sam’s hand and I rush at her. I restrain her while he tries to figure out how to fix the ship. I feel the gravity becoming so intense now.
“Can you fix it?” I shout, holding Sam to the floor.
“I-I don’t know! I’m a doctor! Not a mechanic!”
There is a little panel with wires coming out in a disorganized pattern. Gonzalez doesn’t see, but I do from the floor.
“Gonzalez! The panel! The wires lead just outside the room! Just five feet!”
Sam’s struggle slowly stops underneath me. “I don’t want to die,” she whispers. “I don’t want to die!” The gravity is immense now, increasing at an exponential rate.
“Got to get to…” I crawl with all my might and so does Gonzales and so does Sam. So… Close…. Gravity…. Crushing… Everything! I reach the little box and tear the cables. Suddenly, the gravity hurts more than anything and my body is torn apart. Then, nothing. Nothing but the void.
I wake up, taking a moment for my eyes to adjust. I’m in a bed in a room full of people I’ve never seen before. There is a man leaning over me.
“Hello, Mr. Clemens. I’m Mr. Harberry but you may call me Chuck.”
“Happened? Where are you? Who am I?” chuckled Chuck, interrupting me, “You’re safe now back on Earth. You, Mr. Clemens, died in space.”
“Tell you what, I’ll do the talking and you do the listening.” To this, I nod in compliance. “Very well,” he began, “That whole flight was an experiment dedicated to determining if synthetic humans are prepared for space travel. You proved that androids with sentience are just as capable, if not more capable than humans. You and Mr. Gonzalez were androids and yet proved to be the most capable. Your human captain and crewmates, however, proved to be inadequate for dealing with existential crises.”
“Everyone is safe, everyone is fine. We’ve been taking scans of the other human bodies in their sleep every night. We’ve recreated them with android bodies, just as we have with you, Mr. Clemens.”
“You mean right now?”
“No,” says Chuck, “I mean earlier this year. There’s no way for you to have known this but you and Hitchcock were the only androids based off of preexisting people who lived nearly the same experience 40 years ago. Hitchcock didn’t actually become mad this time. He was programmed to be mad from the start, replicating the actions of the original Hitchcock of 40 years ago. The original man was sad and traumatized by a terrible life. If something gave him more trouble than he could handle, he did his best forget it and was in a constant state of denial.”
“So all of what happened there… was fake? What about the ship?”
“Simple,” Chuck said with a smile, “We needed as real of a situation as possible and so, yes, the ship was real. And the ship really did collapse into a tiny piece of condensed matter until it was pulled into a nearby star.”
I pause for a long moment before I ask, “So what happens now?”
Chuck walks over to a nearby window, “You go back to your regular life, Mr. Clemens.”
I shake my head, “But what I don’t understand is how I’m expected to go on living if now I know that everything is fake.”
Chuck laughs while still looking out the window. “You never did figure that out, did you?” He turns back to me, “Why does it matter? Seriously? Even if nearly all of our actions are simulated, it certainly feels like free will. To a forth dimensional creature, humanity would look like clockwork drones, carrying out actions that they have always been destined to carry out. Where is the freedom in that? Hitchcock was just a product of circumstance and a terrible upbringing. He did his best to be his “own” man, but in the end, he went mad. I ask again, where is the freedom in that, Mr. Clemens?
“The truth is,” Chuck pauses, “The truth is that we don’t know if our reality is real… but that doesn’t really matter because it is all we have and therefore, it’s real to us.” After a long moment of studying my face, Chuck looks back out the window, “You know, you can choose to forget all of this. Have your memory wiped.”
I think for a moment before, “No. I want to remember this. I want to remember your answer.”
“Good,” he says.
I put on a jacket they lent me and head outside. I’m on some sort of airstrip outside of New York. I’m told that I will be picked up by a taxi to take me back to my apartment in the city, but for now I remain motionless, looking up at the sky. Somewhere out there is a star. A star that ate my body up like fish food. Beyond that star however, is the thing that no longer instills fear within me. The blackness, the nothingness, the darkness, the gap. The void.