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    Volume 11, Issue 3, September 10, 2016
    Message from the Editors
 The Dead Life by T.A. Hernandez
 The Lightship by Neil Davies
 Song of the Brethren by David Cleden
 The Quiet Death by Dean Giles
 The Inmates are Running the Asylum, and the Asylum is Running the Ship by Matthew Nichols
 Editors Corner: The Dragon Waking by Grayson Towler
  Editors Corner Review: The Einstein Prophecy by Nikki Baird


         

The Inmates are Running the Asylum, and the Asylum is Running the Ship

Matthew Nichols

 

          The oscillator in the west wing has stopped working. I know because the blinking red light on the workstation is telling me so. I've rerouted all essential ship functions to this workstation in the east wing, including the readouts on the oscillators, the mechanics keeping the rifts in the asylum open. They all have to be in perfect working condition for the day it's going to take to reach the sun. I sit in a darkness illuminated only by the workstation, hoping the oscillator will right itself. It doesn't. And it won't.
          The readout on the west wing oscillator is a harsh, crimson mistress, demanding my attention. I don't want to leave this area. I don't want to have to creep across three sectors of the asylum. If I leave, it will definitely draw the attention of the other possessed that are roaming the halls and corridors. I guess I'll have to make a quick job of it. I get up from the workstation and pad across what used to be the lounge for this wing of the asylum. I go over to the window. Steel shutters encase the other side. I lean in close and peer through them.
          Bodies. Blood. Entrails, other fluids I don't want to think about. They've started flaying the bodies they hung, nude and upside-down, from the upper engineering section. It's meant to scare me, but I'm way past scared at this point. That they've started going the extra mile doesn't surprise me, or affect me that much, really. Not like it would have before all this started. I sigh and turn away from the window.
          If even one of the rifts in the asylum fades, the rift drive powering Pathfinder's engines will lose a significant amount of power. It will take longer to get to the sun, and truth be told, I won't be able to hold out if it takes more than a day. The only thing that's keeping me together is the knowledge that this will be over soon. And nothing terrifies me more than the possibility that this might never end.
          But God, I don't want to have to do this.
          I gather my tools and supplies, including ammunition for the rifle and some medical supplies in case I run into trouble. I sling everything over my shoulders and step in front of the entrance to Sector 2, sealed by a heavy steel security door locked in place with bolts. I take a breath, punch in the password to unlock it, then step through into Sector 2, making sure the door is closed and sealed behind me before continuing.

~

          I'm not sure who came up with the idea to transplant the asylum to power Pathfinder. Whoever it was, they're probably dead. Or possessed. Either way, it fell in line with the way things had gone on Earth for the past century and a half. It's always been funny to me how quickly things that used to be shocking became normal. Things like using afterlives to power whole cities through SSDs, or spectrally sensitive domiciles, which translates to "haunted houses" in non-technical vernacular.
          It goes like this. SSDs carry rifts that open and close in different areas, connecting our world with someone's afterlife. That someone is usually a person who has died in the house, or several people, if the SSD has been around for a while. In fact, the more afterlives connected to a home, the better, because there's more than one to draw power from. The government claims the house by reason of "societal necessity," as they put it. If there's a city that needs a power hook-up, the SSD is then teleported to that location, where it's connected with the local power grid. Teams of spectral engineers, such as myself, go in and set up devices called quantum oscillators. These oscillators emit subatomic vibrations that ensure the rifts stay open. Once they're connected the SSD becomes infused with energies that are still being researched and examined.
          No one really knows what kind of energies the rifts emit. No one really cares, either, save for those researching it. All they know is that it works, and that when the house is hooked into an electrical grid, it can power whole sections of cities without dipping into Earth's severely limited sources of fossil fuels. Said limitation is, of course, the reason why all of this came into being in the first place. We were all scared into doing what was most convenient, having been taken to the brink of war over control of these dwindling resources as well as enduring harsh winters and summers alike with little power to go around.
          Once this peculiar, tragic way of life was established, and things more or less returned to normal, world governments got the idea to harness these energies for space exploration. Not the wide-eyed, child-like Star Trek variety, but mostly to establish where we could find the same resources we'd burned through on Earth. The International Agency for Space Exploration, or the IASE, wanted to get across the solar system to different moons and planets at high rates of speed. The newly christened rift drives could do just that.
          In the span of two decades, we visited Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Europa and Ganymede in orbit of Jupiter. Pathfinder's mission was to head for Titan, in orbit of Saturn. With that moon being the farthest out, the IASE wanted an SSD that could deliver the kind of power required to propel a ship all the way to Titan and back within a matter of weeks. That SSD turned out to be the Mount Holbrook Asylum for the Criminally Insane. The place I'm trapped in on the ship. Three stories of towering, oppressive stone architecture was requisitioned by the U.S. government and teleported up into space, held together by a force field while Pathfinder was built around it.
          The result was something resembling an old potato masher ? a massive square block housing the asylum and engineering section plus a grid of modules stretching in front of it, all of which had been outfitted with the latest inertial dampening technology to prevent the occupants from being pancaked at sublight speeds. Unfortunately, no one knew what had gone on in the asylum, or who they'd had locked up in it. If they had, there would have been serious reservations, serious enough to prevent or perhaps even suspend the expedition indefinitely. Too bad for all of us that the information had been buried under hundreds of feet of government red tape.
          Too bad I figured everything out too late.

~

          I hear something. I think it might be footsteps, so I duck into what used to be a men's restroom. Water drips from a sink faucet. A closer look at it tells me that it's not water. Red droplets gather at the edge of the faucet, gather mass, and then gravity takes over, adding to the viscous pool of crimson at the bottom. This is a phenomenon that was often reported in this section, and having investigated the asylum's history, I know which entity is responsible. David Alan Trenton. Serial killer. He always preferred his blood cold.
          I'm going to have to figure out a way to get around it. A quiet, furtive examination of the restroom uncovers a coffee mug sitting in the corner of one of the stalls. I figure it must have come from one of the engineers working in Sector 2, using its contents for a much-needed caffeine boost and then forgetting about it. I pick up the mug and set it down on one of the sinks. I turn over my left arm and, using my knife, I make a small incision. I squeeze so that my blood drips into the mug. It won't be as cold as he liked it, but he hasn't had a taste of the real stuff since his lethal injection. He'll have to make do.
          I hear panting outside the secondary entrance to my left. Like a dog. There are wet sounds, too, like a thick tongue licking across dry lips. I slowly move over to the other entrance, trying to be as quiet as possible. The minute he figures out someone's in here, he'll be on me. I toss the mug underhanded down the hall. It shatters on the floor and I shift backward as the panting intensifies, growing louder then softer as it passes me. When I hear wet, meaty slurps echoing down the hall, I creep out of the restroom and down the hall, praying he doesn't see me.

~

          I was surprised when they brought me onto the Pathfinder project. I was a low-level spectral engineer fresh out of grad school with a Master of Science degree and promising job prospects. I wouldn't have been called the most brilliant engineer, and while I wasn't exactly thrilled about the state of the world, or my occupation, it was the one that paid the most money. Guess that makes me a bit of a hypocrite. But it would give me what I wanted. A nine -to -five job that saw me heading home to a wife, kids, and my collection of books and holo-games.
          Like most things that are planned out, it wasn't in the cards. The U.S. government informed me that my services were no longer required at the firm I'd been hired on to. A huge bummer, considering how hard I'd fought for the job. Instead, I was offered a position on the engineering team for the trip out to Titan, and that's an offer you simply don't turn down. Not when you get to travel through space, seeing planets and other phenomena that hardly anyone would get to see.
          My duty assignment was in the asylum's east wing, working on the oscillator in that section and making sure everything was copacetic. I'd worked in several SSDs under varying conditions, but this was a whole new ball game. I found that out the minute I entered the engineering section and came face to face with Mount Holbrook for the first time. The only word that comes to mind when thinking of it is?well, misanthropic. Jumbled together. A morass of Victorian and art deco sensibilities that matched the craziness it was meant to house.
          As the days passed and I completed my various tasks, I tried telling myself that it was just like that mansion job I worked during the second summer of my master's program. Creepy, foreboding, served with a side of cold depression that weighed heavily on me the whole time. But this was worse. Far worse. Every time I set foot in the asylum, a heavy blanket of deep cold knitted itself across my shoulders, draping over my body like a poncho with chains sewn into it. I wasn't the only one who felt it, either.
          Spectral engineers have safety nets when things like this happen. Medication. Mandatory appointments with government psychiatrists. Alcohol. Sex, if anyone's willing to jump in the sack with you. I took advantage of all these things, yet none of it helped. It got to the point where not only was I seriously rethinking my tenure with the expedition, but my curiosity was starting to get the better of me. Granted, I didn't have anywhere near the amount of experience shared by the other engineers, but they all agreed in quiet mess hall discussions that they'd never felt anything like this before. Neither had I.
          It was obvious at that point that something truly terrible had happened in the asylum, something that went beyond death by natural causes. During my off hours, I started doing some digging. I had a workstation in my quarters that I used, and when being alone became too much, I'd use the workstations in the computer lab where the other engineers pored over holographic displays of schematics and diagrams. Except I was digging into the history of the place.
          And what I found did not reassure me.

~

          I knew I'd been too loud when I'd entered Sector 3. The deadbolts in the door had jammed and I had to put all my weight on the lever for the manual override. I'd managed to get through Sector 2 with no problems, the end had been in sight, and I got impatient. Stupid. The resulting sound of the deadbolts snapping backward reverberated throughout the asylum, and every possessed within two floors of me must've heard it.
          I killed the first five with my rifle, which carried a makeshift silencer I'd fashioned for it. It was knocked from my hands, and when the next six barreled down the hall towards me, I had to resort to my knife. I won, but just barely, and now I can't tell whether the blood coating my body is mine or theirs. As if all this isn't bad enough, I am now wounded. One of the possessed, a man with someone else's face held on by a leather belt, raked his knife down my calf. He'd been going for the tendons in the back of my knee, but I'd crooked my leg to the side at the right moment.
          It's not deep, but it hurts like hell. There's a cauterizer in my toolkit, but I can't use it out here in the open. I grit my teeth against the pain, then pick up my rifle and toolkit and begin a slow, bloodied limp across Sector 3.

~

          The worst of the worst of the criminally insane had been sent to Mount Holbrook when no other prison could contain them. I know what you're thinking, but it wasn't like what you see in the movies. There weren't any mad scientists conducting experiments on the inmates. No sadistic nurses or doctors. Just a core team of psychiatrists, licensed independent social workers, nurses, orderlies, and security officers doing their best to work with people who wanted very much to kill them using the most horrific means available.
          I managed to hack my way through all the red tape placed over the accounts of what happened to make Mount Holbrook close down for good. I read through the news accounts that hadn't been redacted, and I felt a cold pit blossom in my gut when I realized what the rifts led to. You see, it started with a mistake. A code that hadn't been entered in correctly. An electrical failure that cascaded throughout the asylum. No one knew exactly, but what was known was that the inmates ? cannibals, rapists, pedophiles, and serial killers alike ? got out of their cells, and descended on the aforementioned core team in a howling mass of knives, blunt objects, and teeth.
          Out of almost a hundred employees, five walked out of the asylum. Two of them were security officers, and they managed to protect a psychiatrist, a nurse, and an orderly in a thirty-six-hour standoff. They killed every inmate that tried to break into where they'd holed up, which was somewhere around Sector 2. If they'd been military, they surely would have gotten medals for what they accomplished over three days of intense hand-to-hand fighting.
          I was glad for the survivors, and scared shitless for the rest of us. We'd never dealt with something like this before. This was an extremely powerful set of hundreds of afterlives that belonged to the very worst humanity had to offer. The instances where a departed entity managed to cross back into our physical realm were very rare, but they had happened. What if they figured out how to come back through the rifts? What if they discovered they had free access to a ship full of unsuspecting victims? What if they found their way back to Earth?
          There were too many questions, too many variables, too many things that could go horribly wrong. I took my findings to the mission commander, a guy named Phelps. I was, of course, careful not to let him in on the fact that I'd hacked into secret government files, but gave him just enough to show him that I had serious misgivings about the expedition and why. I was told that my fears were unsubstantiated, and that if I ever wanted to work in spectral engineering when I got home from Titan, I'd stop fomenting dissent.
          Yes, he actually said that.
          I knew Phelps was under considerable pressure from the IASE to deliver in terms of finding additional resources on Titan. One spectral engineer's reservations weren't going to alter his course. So, after my little meeting with him went bust, I decided to hell with it. I was going to blow the whistle. On what I thought was a secure channel, I dispatched my findings to every news organization I could think of. The powers that be found out, and I was locked in what served as the ship's brig, informed by Phelps that I would be charged with treason and interfering in a government-sanctioned operation. And by the way, my position as assistant engineer on the expedition was officially terminated.
          Good news for me. Bad news for everyone else.
          And then, on my second day waiting for federal agents to be shuttled up to collect me, the engines activated on their own. Pathfinder's systems began to go haywire.
          And the screaming began.

~

          I'm within sight of the security door leading into the west wing. I'm low on ammunition and I've been cut twice more. I honestly don't know how or if I'm going to get back to the east wing.
          There's a horde of them behind me, several dozen strong. They're all naked, men and women alike, slathered in blood and snarling, chanting, laughing hysterically or uttering some variation on all three. I've seen this variety before, and if they get to me before I can access the west wing, I swear I'll put a bullet in my head before I let them take me.
          I fall against the west wing entrance. I punch in the password. The possessed behind me know what that means, and suddenly they're done playing. Their howls crescendo into a singular vocalization of rage as they rush down the passageway towards me. The bolts snap backward and I stumble inside, winded from limping for my life. I push the door closed right as they reach it, and I hear them biting and clawing at it as I re-enter the password on the other side to lock it.
          I'm safe. For now. The oscillation chamber's not far.

~

          Pure, unadulterated nightmare greeted me when a crewmember let me out of the brig and ushered me into the command module, where Phelps and the mission crew were scrambling to figure out what the hell was going on. Somehow the engines had kicked on, and we were rocketing away from Earth at full sublight, no course plotted. I tried to remotely shut down the engines, decrease the power feeds, anything I could think of to get Pathfinder to stop or at the very least, slow down.
          I made the suggestion that we enter engineering to manually shut down the engines. Phelps told me he'd locked down engineering. When I confusedly asked why, he showed me on the monitors. It was a slaughterhouse down there. All I could see was one massive, bloody melee stretching across engineering, flooding along gangways and catwalks, spilling through the asylum's doors and windows, splattering the walls and floors with red.
          We had no chance of making it through that. Not when we couldn't tell who would try to kill us. Not when things were being done to everyone down there, things I can't even describe because they were just that barbaric and cruel. We had to shut off the monitors when Dave Jenkins, another engineer on a team in Sector 3, lifted someone's eyeballs up to the camera and sang, "I seeee yooouuuu!"
          After that happened, one of the security team suggested cutting life support to engineering. Take them all out in one fell swoop. Most of us protested, myself included, but were overruled by Phelps. He wasn't going to take the chance that whatever craziness had taken hold of engineering would spread to the rest of the ship. Phelps gave the go-ahead to shut down engineering's life support. We turned the monitors back on and watched as one by one, the gore-spattered crewmembers dropped where they stood.
          Since I was pretty much it in terms of an engineering team, the mission crew turned to me for my recommendations. I had to put my anger and grief to the side so I could think clearly. Whoever was left, we were responsible for their safety, so we put our heads together and came up with a plan. We would get into engineering and shut off the oscillators. Close the rifts. Make sure nothing could either come through or go back, and then, once we'd called for a rescue vessel and we were all safely off, we would detonate Pathfinder remotely.
          I'd decided long before then that when we got back to Earth, I wasn't going to allow anyone to bury what had happened out here. This could never happen again. I suppose this is why Phelps and his mission crew did what they did. I went down to engineering with some other crew members using oxygen masks, since we'd all agreed that keeping life support deactivated would be more prudent.
          A third of the way across the main walkway leading to the asylum's front doors, Phelps reactivated life support. He locked us in there, too. With them.
          Hundreds of fallen bodies around us began to violently stir, and soon we were running for it, trying to slam our way through a screaming mass of arms, legs, and hands twisted into claws. I looked behind me and caught glimpses of what they were doing to the crewmembers they'd caught. It only made me run faster. I couldn't help them. God help me, I wanted to, but there was no other choice except to make for the asylum.
          I was the only one who made it. I kicked aside two possessed and entered the password for the west wing security door, fled inside, then pushed it closed, relocking it. Then I scrambled through the west wing, making sure all the other security doors and entrances were sealed shut. I found a workstation, and a few commands from me caused steel security shutters to close over the windows, a measure that had been taken while the asylum was floating suspended in orbit in the force field.
          I was locked in. Trapped. And I was sure Phelps and the mission crew didn't know anyone had made it. Otherwise, they would've just disengaged the locks and opened the asylum. If they thought I was dead, that was a good thing. It would make what was to come next that much easier.

~

          It's dark in the oscillation chamber. Not completely pitch black, but enough so that I have to dig my flashlight out of the toolkit and switch it on. The quantum oscillator sits in the center of the chamber, a vertical pill atop a tripod sending pulses out in a 360-degree arc to keep the rift open. You can't actually see it with the naked eye. You need a computer monitor that's hooked into the oscillator and synced with its frequency.
          I've seen a rift in that way several times. It's quite something. Like watching a black hole swirling with all its gravitational, light-bending distortions. I take my tablet out of my toolkit and hook it into the oscillator, tuning the visual frequency until they match. Then I hold it out in front of me, sweeping it back and forth across the room until I finally see it. It flowers open then shrinks into a pinprick. This won't do at all.
          I get to work on the oscillator. I don't want to activate the lights for fear of agitating any possessed stalking around the corridors. I don't have enough ammunition for an extended confrontation, and I'm exhausted. The blood loss from my wounds isn't helping. I'll tend to them as soon as I'm done. Every minute that goes by is lost time getting to the sun. I want to get this over with. I want this nightmare to end.
          They're still pounding against the security door out there with everything they've got. They won't get in though.
          Almost done.

~

          I wish I could say that what I did in the days after I became trapped in the asylum wasn't entirely motivated by vengeance. But I'd be lying. I'd watched, helpless, as my co-workers, my friends, people I cared about, were torn apart and mutilated while they were still alive. I'd watched as Phelps and his mission crew attempted to cover their asses by locking away the only witnesses to their arrogance, their negligence, and their stupidity. But it wasn't going to go beyond this ship.
          Not if I could help it.
          I put all of my engineering and computer skills to work. Used every trick in my bag. Every method at my disposal. Eventually, every system on the ship was under my control. Navigation. Life support. Engineering control. Communications. I disabled that last one right off the bat. In addition to being a giant fuck you, I didn't want to risk the possessed or the things that inhabited them getting off the ship.
          No, the rifts in the asylum would be permanently closed, and the only way to do that was to destroy the asylum. To do that, I had to destroy the ship, and the self-destruct was the one system I hadn't been able to bring under my control. So, at my workstation in the east wing, weeping softly for myself and for everyone I'd lost, I plotted a course that would take Pathfinder directly into the sun. If you could fully understand what I'd seen, and what these things were capable of, you would understand that I did not want to take any chances whatsoever.
          The only thing left to do was to remain locked in the asylum. I knew that Phelps and the crew were going to try to override my control of the ship, and I had to stay ahead of them if I was going to accomplish the asylum's destruction. They were never able to. Pathfinder continued its journey back through the solar system at full sublight over several weeks. I managed to look at Earth for about two minutes before I had to turn the viewer off. Everything ran smoothly, the oscillators doing what they were supposed to do.
          Until the day one of them didn't.

~

          I hear a voice. It's male, laced with static. It's coming through one of the intercoms they installed throughout the asylum. It's Phelps.
          I've been lying in the dark of the east oscillation chamber for hours. It's done. The oscillator's fixed. The sublights are back at full power. I used the cauterizer in my toolkit to seal my wounds. It hurt like hell, and I passed out once I finished healing the laceration across my chest. As if my day couldn't get any worse, I find myself awakening to the sound of Phelps' voice.
          He's saying that he's managed to hack into my workstation in the west wing. He's managed to get everything back except for navigation. If I release navigation to him, we can put this all behind us. We can turn back to Earth. It's not too late. I don't respond. He counters my silence by saying that if I don't release navigation, he'll unlock the asylum. They'll all get in, and unless I want to end up like my friends?at this point I'm laughing my ass off. It's the funniest goddamn thing I've ever heard. The impotent little commander locked in his module threatening me with something that has more or less already happened.
          Pathfinder is shaking. A look at my tablet tells me we've reached the sun. Phelps is shrieking his lungs out over the intercom. He's unlocked the asylum. They're coming in. They're going to get me.
          No, they're not.
          I sit up against the oscillator, the muzzle of the rifle firmly pressed into the flesh under my chin. The possessed break into the oscillation chamber as the heat begins to rise, and when I squeeze the trigger, I can almost imagine I'm on a sandy shore, enjoying the view of the ocean, and because it's all so warm and pleasant, I figure that maybe this isn't such a bad way to die after all.
         
         




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