John’s Worst Enemy
Originally published by SDO Fantasy, and included in the print anthology The Best of SDO Fantasy.
John’s Worst Enemy was also translated into Greek for publication in the Greek magazine Ennea.
John’s Worst Enemy
Sleek and white, the Pegasus sped off toward other stars, away from Dolmar 2 and its two tiny moons. Inside the Pegasus, in the largest of the chambers adjoining the bridge, an alien artifact sat gleaming with silvery metal tubes.
The alien machine crackled and I saw John, reflected in a slender slab of the artifact, give a start.
“Aw damn, I’ve cut myself,” he said, and he had, on a sharp edge. You had to be careful. There were many sharp edges.
John plucked a towel off what I had come to think of as the manifold of the alien artifact. Although to tell you the truth I had no idea what a manifold actually was; it was just a word I’d picked up from somewhere. He wiped some strange blue substance from his hands and inspected the cut on his index finger. He seemed concerned about getting the blue stuff in the cut.
“Did you cut yourself badly?” I asked.
The blood drained visibly from John’s face at the sound of my voice. In contrast, a bright red blot welled up on his finger. Rudely, he ignored me. He placed the rag back down on the manifold and returned to work, and we worked together in silence for some time.
I could handle the silence only so long. I decided to explore aloud my thoughts concerning the alien artifact. It would probably be wasted on John, who had the intellectual capacity of a gnu, but I didn’t care. (I knew as much about gnus as I did about manifolds, but whatever they were, I had the impression that they were not particularly deep thinkers.) So I said, “I wonder what the people who built this machine were like?”
John stopped what he was doing.
“The artifact does bear a certain resemblance to human machinery,” I continued. “This race must have had opposable digits. Although judging by the size of the parts, their hands must have been at least twice the size of human hands.”
John frowned. He held up an alien object that looked like a squished metal doughnut. He set it on top of a stubby pole that emerged from the compartment I thought of as the manifold and gave it a spin to get it going. It spun effortlessly down and around the pole until it reached the bottom.
“How do we know for sure this stuff is alien, Johnny?” John hated being called Johnny; I couldn’t resist.
He gave a good look around the chamber before responding. I have no idea what he was looking for; we were alone aboard the ship.
“No human beings made this machine,” he said.
“Look what it’s made out of. I don’t even know what this stuff is. And I’m the first human being who’s ever been out this far.”
“You mean we’re the first,” I said.
I stared at John’s reflection in the artifact. His pale blue eyes stared back, and wrinkles creased his forehead.
“It looks alien, too,” he said. “Smells and feels alien. And I have no idea what the hell it is, couldn’t even begin to guess what the…” he trailed off.
“Is something bothering you, John?” I asked.
He chewed on his lower lip. “You weren’t here before.”
I laughed. Sometimes John had the craziest notions. The thing about John, though, he never hesitated to say what was on his mind.
“That’s it,” he said. “You weren’t here before.”
He began to pace. It helped him to think, I knew.
“Now, John –”
“Be quiet!” he snapped.
“Get a hold of yourself, John. For goodness sake, relax. Why don’t we work on the artifact some more? It really is a beauty you know, and it’s going to make us a fortune back home.” The search for an alien object like this one had consumed much of John’s life. Hard won it had been, but so worth the effort. If only he could manage to get it back home.
Mention of the treasure succeeded in distracting John. I saw the pleasure in his eyes as he took in the machine’s wonderful contours. He brushed a finger over a fluted edge. “I’m not stupid, you know. You have something to do with this machine.”
As he fled from the room I had to hand it to John. Though not very bright, he was certainly a man of action. Had to be, or he wouldn’t have survived out here for very long.
For instance, the time the meteoroid breached the hull and penetrated the oxygen reservoir. Another man might have panicked and simply sealed the compartment. The ship’s main oxygen supply would have been destroyed within minutes. John, though, hit the pumps and flushed the reservoir’s contents below decks. Only then did he seal the compartment. His quick action saved us, no question.
Of course, only an idiot would have allowed his ship to be struck by a meteoroid in the first place.
John raced to the medical bay and I with him. The Pegasus’ medical bay was quite reasonable for a ship of its size — John had ensured that this was so before leaving home, increasing an already severe debt load. All of his debts would be paid for several times over when he returned with the artifact.
“What’s the matter, John? Aren’t you feeling well? Maybe you should lie down for awhile.”
He ignored me.
“I should tell you, I find it very disturbing that you don’t think I was here before. I hope you’re not going crazy,” I added, just to get his attention. He drew a sharp breath at that.
We examined his reflection in a mirror. Sweat glistened on his brow, and I thought that he looked pale. “You don’t look well at all. Why don’t you take an aspirin?”
“Shut up!” he said. “Or I’ll” —
“Or you’ll what? What could you possibly do? Throw me out an airlock? Really, John.”
He poured himself a glass of scotch and downed it. Afterward I felt a thrill as he gripped the glass tightly — might he be considering my suggestion about the airlock? But when he moved it was only to throw himself onto the diagnostic bench. He twisted the control panel until the unit hovered above his face. Punching several buttons, he set up a physical to include a blood work-up, catscan, and MRI. The diagnostic tube whirred forth and slid into place. It enveloped his entire body. Though he was supposed to lie still, I saw both his fists clenching and unclenching before it grew too dark to see.
As the program hummed about us, I asked, “Do you think you might have a cold or something, John?”
“You weren’t here before,” he said tightly. “I cut myself on the artifact, and then you were here.”
When the program finished John lay motionless for several seconds. Then he pushed the tube back and swung to his feet. He punched a monitor on and we read the results of the tests together. They were fairly concise. Anything considered out of the ordinary was highlighted at the beginning. It looked like he didn’t have a cold after all.
John mumbled some of the results aloud. “Damage to the corpus callosum. Hemispheric bicameralism. Cause unknown.” He leaned heavily against the counter. I was afraid that he might pass out. Indeed, I felt weak myself.
He managed to read further. The medical bay suggested that he be on guard for instances of catatonia and delusion, and that he be aware of the content and form of his thought patterns. It suggested dosages of chlorpromazine over regular intervals. Other than that, we read, nothing further could be done while onboard the Pegasus.
John slumped in a nearby seat. I wondered if he was aware of his right foot tapping rapidly on the deck. “This voice is only in my head.”
“That’s ridiculous, John. I can assure you, I am quite real.”
He massaged his temples, hard. “You are just me, thinking to myself. The diagnosis was clear about that.”
“Obviously the diagnostic system isn’t functioning properly.”
John stood and exited the chamber. I wondered if he was aware of where he was going.
It required a special code to access the airlock. I knew it off by heart. Predictably for a man of John’s limited intellect, the code was simply his wife and children’s names coded numerically. John punched the number as I repeated it to him.
“Seven two two,” I finished. The first steel door shushed open. We smelled stale air.
John stepped forward. “I wonder if anti-psychotic medication would help?” he asked.
The door shut automatically behind us. With a dull thud and a series of sharp clicks, the mechanism locked securely into place.
“We don’t carry chlorpromazine, John. Besides, those neural pathways have been destroyed. They can’t be regenerated.”
I recited the code for the final panel. John stabbed at the buttons. The warning sounded and John looked surprised. We shared a magnificent view of our ship speeding off into space before his eyes burst.
I managed to say just before he exploded, “Also, I think air pressure is really your biggest concern right now.”