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Note to a Hypoxic Delusion

K. Lynn Harrison writes Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her short stories have appeared in Tales to Terrify and Alone in a Room With Invisible People, among others. She lives in the rural midwest, and is working on a novel about dying worlds, extended families, and space eunuchs. When she's not writing, she's probably either out dancing or hiking. You can find out much, much, much more about her on her website, ReprobateTypewriter.com.

You do not exist.
Dr. Stadler told me so, and I believe him.
Of course, I believe him. I've known Marty since we were children together. We rode bikes together. We went fishing. We swapped out pieces of our computers and chemistry sets. We competed our way through middle school and high school and calculus and chemistry and physics, but we were always a team. Who else would the program choose to tell me the worst news of my entire life?
You do not exist.
It probably speaks to my state of mind that I spent the better part of a day debating how to tell you. There's no real reason to tell you at all. There's no reason I shouldn't go straight to the life support hatch, open the door, and turn a wrench. Fix the malfunction, and get my head on right. Yes, darling. That would be the rational thing to do. The safe thing to do. Fix the problem, and get my O2 levels up, ASAP. Yes, indeedy. Breathable air is just that important.
No one in their right mind would do anything else.
I am not in my right mind.
I spent hours thinking about how I was going to break the news. How do you tell a hypoxic delusion they were never really there?
You do not exist. The house with the two-car garage and the nice neighborhood in the suburbs do not exist. The dogs I walk every single day do not exist, and the big park I walk them in does not exist, either.
Our children do not exist.
I spent time thinking about that, too. About how I'd sit them down one by one, and explain. Your mother and I have something we want to tell you. You're all a bunch of hallucinations, my oxygen-deprived mind working overtime. It doesn't mean I love you any less. It just means you're not real.
I thought about the questions they'd ask after I finished telling them I have to fix the life support system. Who's going to feed Walter and Bruno, Daddy? Where are we going to go? Do I still have to do my homework? Is it going to hurt?
And I don't have answers for them.
What do you say to your kids, who never really existed in the first place, when they ask what it's like not to exist?
I stood at the back door of the house in the suburbs and watched them play. I don't know the answers. We'll come up with something together.
I'm still thinking about how to tell you. Take you out to a nice restaurant. Order wine. Break it to you gently over dessert. You know I love you and the kids with all my heart...
But you don't exist.
Neither does the restaurant, or the wine, or the chicken Parmesan.
There is only me, and I am dying.
The low, steady hum of the life support system's failure alarm pulls me back into the emptiness of space.
"David?" Marty's voice was just tired, as if he'd been calling my name for too long to remember. "David, are you there? It's me, Marty."
I shake off the jarring awareness that all those times you brought me lunch on the spaceship weren't real, either--never mind the fact that I can still feel white-bread crumbs on the console--and talk to him.
"Yeah, I'm here." I fill my voice with business. "How are things back on Earth?"
"David, I've done everything I can from down here. I need you to replace the solenoid valve on the O2 pump." He pauses, and I say nothing. "The oxygen is there. You're just not getting it."
I know there are things he won't tell me, even if I ask.
What are my odds of survival?
Where am I?
What else is wrong with my ship?
But those are the kind of things I don't ask. No. Common sense tells us both, one step at a time. One problem at a time. Slow and steady until we get me home.
Even when I concentrate, I can't remember anything but you. The house. The kids. The cat.
Marty isn't talking about you, though. I know that. I have a real home somewhere, but I can't remember.
"Just focus on getting to that valve, buddy. Just keep moving forward."
I inch forward along the narrow passage, and concentrate on keeping my respiration steady. Inhale and count. Exhale and count. Counting seconds, counting heartbeats. Not much oxygen left, now, but hyperventilation won't get me anywhere.
Stay calm. Don't panic. Conserve oxygen with slow, steady movements. Marty doesn't have to tell me. The training I never thought I'd have to use kicks in on a loop. Inhale, and count. Adrenaline and a thousand half-forgotten drills keep me from thinking of anything else.
Exhale, and count. I'd like to call it discipline, but it might just be my own hypoxic mind contracting until there isn't room for anything else.
Marty fades into the background.
I know how to fix a solenoid valve. That, at least I can do.
I leave the explanations up to you. Maybe I should be sitting beside you on the sofa, presenting a unified front. I tell myself you understand what they're going through better than I do. You'll know what to say to them.
I'm not exactly sure if I'm headed to the life support hatch because that's what needs to be done, or because I'm a coward. I can't have hallucinations, if I'm dead. Rational enough. I tell myself there is no you without me, and that's also true. I'm not running to replace that valve just to save my own ass.
I keep moving.
Maybe I really am saving you by saving myself.
I can't think of a better alternative.
If I die, you die. The thought keeps me going.
One foot in front of the other in front of the other and the other.
No time to waste. No oxygen to waste.
Inhale, and count. Exhale.
I'm thinking of you and the kids... of getting home to that house in the suburbs. Of saving you. We'll find a way. Inhale. We'll do our best.
I promise.
I'm there.
I finally get the hatch open, and stop.
I can't remember which way to turn the wrench. Left or right? I can't remember which direction is left or right, and I can't remember how the release works. I can't remember which pocket I put the replacement valve in. I close my eyes, and prepare to guess. I can't picture the valve, so I reopen my eyes. I recognize Marty's voice a million miles away, but somehow, the familiar sound doesn't add up to words.
While I stand, staring into the mess of tubes and pumps and wires, you reach around me, and take the wrench.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, December 21st, 2022
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