“Ground 0” by Russell Hemmell

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I blink, the dormitory’s white light like a slap in my face. My vision cone is restricted to pinhole-sized view but still sufficient to remind me where I am. The hospital room, stinking of chloroform and green waxed sheets, a familiar setting for a feeling that never becomes any easier to swallow. Nausea grabs my stomach and I feel migraine’s bites into my head like claw-sharp blows. I sweat blood, and tears sting my eyelids in salty rivers unable to overflow. 

It is 3 am, Sunday, November 2. I’ve been sleepless for 75 hours, yet my brain refuses to switch off.

“Chandra, take your medications.” 

My elder sister is always here for me. It helps that she’s one of the base’s military surgeons. Not that anything has worked so far. I wonder if it ever will.

*

The consultation has delivered nothing, apart from another distraught day, another restless evening, and a night that promises to be even worse. They’re powerless with my case. Medications or not, I can’t sleep at night, or more precisely, I can’t sleep over. 

Even when my neuro-system is overloaded with drugs, I invariability wake up in the darkest hour, when not a soul in my timezone is awake, not among the good people, at least. 

I guess I’m no longer one of them, if I have ever been.  For what I’ve done can’t be unmade. I have obeyed my orders, without doubts or hesitation, and I’d deserve a punishment harsher than that. But there’s nobody around able or willing to administer it: we’ve killed them all.

*

They call it Space-Compounded PTSD, a misnomer as many others and a fancy denomination that covers an ugly truth: what happens to you when you got shell-shocked in a military mission in Lower Earth Orbit, often carrying out the destruction of rebel satellite-colonies. Whatever it is -medical views are mixed when not seemingly confused on this point- one of the consequences is that life assumes a ghost-like consistency, with brief flashes of migraine-enhanced clarity and long evenings of dazed stupor. 

But it’s not my days that made the wreck I am now and deprived me of any sense of identity I’d been left with. It’s my nights -those eternal, freeze-frame hours where I live those events over and over again. 

The war, the mayhem. 

The moment we docked, opened the hatch and spread like famished locusts. 

Flaring weapons, screams and violent fights. 

The destruction of villages that spared nobody, not even animals or synthetic organisms. 

And all those people on the crater-ridden, frozen ground, like broken dolls or dummies without strings. 

I’ve witnessed all shades of red, from crimson to carmine, until it becomes purple. It is when the blood dries up and nothing in a liquid state remains and lingers, not even tears.

*

“Chandra, please. You have to take those tablets, or you’ll never get over it. The SC-PTSD doesn’t disappear alone.”

My sister is getting worried, while I’m only growing exhausted. Those memories, clearer and more vivid than any experience of my life right now, are finishing to destroy whatever figment of sensibility still existed in this person I used to be.

Until one day, without saying anything to her or the other surgeons, I sign off and leave, with my immaculate medical suit still on.

 I’m heading to the worst-kept secret in town, the place so many of us, broken veterans from space colonial wars, all-powerful, genetically enhanced bodies and a damaged mind, pay a visit to at one moment or another. They call it Ground O, and it’s a memory-retrieval facility, where we sell the (useful) bits of our existence in exchange of erasing them forever from our synapses, together with the painful awareness of the self. 

I’m not mistaken. This is a civilised way of eliminating the society’s filth without being charged with murder, no blood spilt, no useless crying. The host remains alive, but the owner is forever gone. For, albeit they technically let us survive, inhabiting the same, functioning flesh vessel of before, we die to our life as it used to be. 

“This way, Ma’am.”

The spider-shaped holodroid that shows me the way has the reassuring voice of a polite executioner.

I lie down inside the neural accelerator, where delicate light tendrils encircle me penetrating my skin, dancing to a low-pitched, melodic suite for harps and lutes. A rainbow of nanoparticles dawns in front of my eyes and starts, slowly, softly, and inexorably, the systematic annihilation of Sgt. First Class Chandra Vakinji’s brain cells.

*

“You’re in your room, Chandra.” 

A cold hand caresses her face. 

“Everything will be fine, I promise.”

Chandra wakes up to a hospital room. She stretches her legs. Yes, the setting is the same, as it has been for one year, two months, three weeks ago, the moment in a frozen space-time from where all her memories start. Chandra doesn’t have any recollection of another place. They call it hospital, and they say it’s to cure brain-shattered people. She supposes she’s one of them.

It’s 5 pm, and this time she has slept over 25 hours. 

They say it’s going to be like that for a while, because her brain craves the sleep like an addict her fix, in a strenuous effort to rebuild what has been obliterated. Apparently, she sought the services of a memory-suppressing facility, Ground O, which at times suppresses the self tout-court. This is what they’re afraid happened to her, without having the courage to tell her the truth. But she does not need to remember to understand: their expressions are explicit enough.

“Do you want me to bring a mirror for you?”  the woman says, tears in her eyes.

This woman is Chandra’s sister, apparently. She comes here every day, spending time with her, showing her pictures of them. Speaking for hours about the books she liked to read, and her favourite food. Giving her back splinters of soul, shreds of self, she says.

Why for, Chandra thinks without making the effort to reply; the shape and the coulor of her own face means nothing to her.

Memory or not, it’s not that she ignores who she was, or what her life has been before. They have told her, all those people who used to know Chandra, her sister first. But she has no images for those events, so they can’t hurt her. They’re like the life of another person, spooky stories told around a campfire, no more real than a horror movie and fading away in the same way when the projection stops.

Chandra yawns. Her days only had a two-hour-length since the supposed retrieval procedure, and she thinks today is going to be not that different. The time to wash and feed herself, a distracted look at the news, and the haze will envelop her without any warning with its soft, reassuring sleekness. She’ll head back to her bedroom, ready to plunge again into an ocean of unconscious bliss. 

Chandra catches her sister crying in silence while she takes the empty cups away from Chandra’s table. She’s always sad, her sister, even when she tries to conceal it and soothes what she, the surgeon, believes is discomfort or unbearable solitude for her beloved little sibling. 

“It won’t last forever, Chandra. You’ll recover. You’ll have your life back.”

They repeat it every other day, like a mantra, implying Chandra will eventually feel integer again, and strong, and alive. They’re lying or theirs it’s just a wishful thinking, a delusional state that refuses to bend to the inevitable.

Chandra-person doesn’t care. 

Chandra already has another life, one that belongs to her only, made of the slippery substance of dreams. 

Slumber is a wonderland where even ghosts are not scary, albeit sometimes they inhabit castles of shadow, orbitals of graphene and pits of doom. Lost in a tasteless void emptier than outer space, she gladly embraces all the creatures of that alternate dimension, whose porous borders keep her sane with their peculiar eeriness and their tentacular, sleek caress.

One day, maybe, Chandra will have to be back to world of the aware-and-living ones, when the Sun shines in the sky, and clocks are kings. Where reason is expected and madness is an outlaw.  She is not happy with this prospect, because she’d have to walk, talk, and smile, answer to a name, deceive for a profit, follow orders and kiss on cue.

She’d have to forget amoebas, bats that are not drones, star-churning nebulas, and the sticky happiness that now fills her sleep, making her hands like blossoming flowers and her limbs inert.

 

***

 

Russell Hemmell is a French-Italian transplant in Scotland, passionate about astrophysics, history, and speculative fiction. Winner of the Canopus Awards for Excellence in Interstellar Writing. Recent stories in Aurealis, Flame Tree Press, The Grievous Angel, and others. SFWA, HWA, and Codexian. Find them online at their blog earthianhivemind.net and on Twitter @SPBianchini.