The Mirror Syndrome: Part 2 by Jeffrey Greene

Day 492: I can hardly bring myself to write this: a few hours ago, while we tried to sleep, Major Tove Heimdal hanged himself in his quarters. We are all shattered. Our pilot and navigator is gone, and Captain Wren will have to take over his duties. It was the captain who found him, after Tove failed to report for duty. I knew he was reaching the breaking point, and can’t help but feel responsible, but how could I have prevented it? Captain Wren told me—in confidence, since morale is dangerously low—that when he saw his friend’s body in the dim light of his quarters, “it was myself that I saw hanging there.” 

            “At least now I know for sure that my brain is tricking me,” he said. “It was Tove, not me. We can’t let ourselves forget that. We are now three individuals, just as we were four when the ship took off, who see only themselves. I’ve no idea why, I only know we’ve got to fight it.” 

            Something occurred to me, then. “Sir, since Tove was the first to experience symptoms of the Mirror Syndrome,” I said, “It’s possible that he’d completely accepted the illusion of having four bodies with one identity. He knew he was losing ground and might have believed that his depression and anxiety had made him a liability. I can’t be sure of this, but he might have considered the loss of one fourth of himself acceptable.” Captain Wren was shocked. “You mean he might have thought that he was doing this to save the other three quarters of himself?  My God.”


Day 493: The captain ordered an autopsy on Major Heimdal, which I carried out with some reluctance, while understanding that a post-mortem study of Tove’s brain might be the only chance I’d have to discover the cause of our insomnia. I did the best I could with the limited equipment and facilities available on the ship. Emotionally, it was difficult. Tove was my closest friend on the ship. The results were both revealing and inconclusive. I couldn’t test for every neurotransmitter, but what I did find showed the problem to be—at least on the physical level—glandular. The deceased’s pineal gland, tiny enough when functionally normally, was strangely shriveled, resulting, I suspect, in a much lowered secretion—if not a complete loss—of melatonin, one of the primary inducers of drowsiness and sleep. In contrast, the HPA (hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis) had been wildly overactive, producing adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol virtually non-stop, which accounted for the hyperactivity, chronic insomnia, restlessness and anxiety plaguing all of us. 

            There were also higher than normal amounts of acetylcholine in the neural tissue.  Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter with multiple functions, including the activation of muscle tissue, but it is also instrumental in producing the vivid imagery of dreaming during REM sleep.  Could this mean that our collective hallucination is some kind of shared, waking dream? We already know that the evidence of our senses is conveying false information. I am not the captain, the engineer and the doctor all rolled into one, some tripartite entity with the face of Elise Lindfors. There are three of us alive now, three people who are being slowly, inexorably led to feel as if they are one being. Our constant stress has resulted in significant hypertension in all three of us, that I’m treating with ACE inhibitors, which are known to suppress acetylcholine to some degree. Why haven’t they reduced or even stopped our hallucinations? Yet another question I can’t answer.

            The autopsy left me with only a partial knowledge of what is happening to us, not how or why.  I saw no evidence of tumors, cell damage or any other disease process in Major Heimdal’s body. His blood pressure had been very high, as mine, the captain’s, and Zhin-Yi’s have. We’re all struggling.  But it was his mind that killed him. 


Day 520: At this point I have run out of treatment options, beyond the nightly injections of morphine, which is all we have now, having exhausted our supply of oral sleep aids. It’s hard for me to say this, but Tove’s suicide may have saved our lives. We would certainly have run out of drugs if he hadn’t… done what he did. I still wonder if that was his intention. After all, if we’re just sundered fragments of one universal Self, as he apparently believed, what does it matter if one more of those innumerable manifestations chooses to die and return to the matrix? He was a good man, if difficult to know intimately, though God knows I tried. 

            The month after his suicide has been a terrible time. The Mirror Syndrome’s steady progression has taken an even more disturbing turn in the last few days. The early illusion of being a composite being working together for a common purpose—getting the ship home, has been replaced by a raging paranoia. We secretly look at our doubles with hatred and mistrust, suspecting them of being not merely imposters, but actively plotting against us. Each one of us feels menaced by two clever enemies who have stolen his or her face and made it their own. Our lifelines to sanity have for some time now been our jobs, which we perform as best we can in our compromised mental states, knowing that to fail in this is certain death. Capt. Wren issues orders in the fewest words necessary, and we obey with a simple ‘yes, sir’ as often as possible.  All the usual pleasantries, jokes, banter, and shared feelings have long since been abandoned. It is a deathly quiet ship.

            I can only describe the outward manifestation of what my shipmates are experiencing by observing my own. I’ve begun hearing my own voice speaking to me though the mouths of my two doubles which, along with my face, makes it that much more difficult to remind myself that I’m trapped in a hallucination that won’t end. My shipmates fix me with furtive or wild-eyed stares, and it has become impossible to dispel the weird impression that, even though I know, because of the name on her uniform, that it is Zhin-Yi I am passing in the corridor, I am seeing and hearing myself in every detail. And she, no doubt, sees me as one of two imposters trying to drive her mad by forcing her to wonder who is the real Zhin-Yi. When I administer the nightly sedative to one of my two doubles, it stares at me with hostility and suspicion, demanding to see the vial of medication before letting me inject it. We are not one, three-lobed being, we are each of us being impersonated by two sinister imposters that, not so long ago, we trusted implicitly.  The situation has gone from intolerable to impossible. How can we continue to behave as a crew with the single goal of returning to Earth? 


Day 533: Until recently, only our senses of smell and touch had not yet betrayed us. When Captain Wren asked me for the latest report on the health of the crew—as if he didn’t already know that it was terrible—he did it with my face and voice, and he no doubt saw and heard himself responding to his request. He had his strong will with which to fight the illusion, and could certainly smell my natural scent, as well as I could smell his. We grimly held on to what was left of our no-longer concrete identities. When, by the end of that month, all five of our senses acted in concert, and the now-illusory perception of our separateness was entirely dispelled by the insidious process occurring in our brains, then we had only our core beings to rebel against everything our senses were screaming at us. 

            But the person dreaming my dreams is still Elise Lindfors, thirty-seven years old, born in Red Wing, Minnesota, descendant of Swedish immigrants, and if my face was certainly in my dreams, so were those of my family, friends, shipmates. I could liken the process to an invisible substance in the air around us, inexorably permeating our bodies and brains, layer by layer, at last claiming our inmost selves, at which point there will be no room, or evidence, for doubt.  The tension on the ship is almost unbearable. I don’t sleep anymore and feel physically sick with a sense of imminent catastrophe that I will be powerless to prevent. 


Day 544: There are two contradictory forces at work within me, and I think, within Captain Wren and Zhin-Yi Liu: the evidence of my senses, which overwhelmingly confirms the wholly improbable reality of three human beings who have somehow turned into one collective entity that wears my face—a subjective bias—with the common purpose of returning safely to Earth.  The other is the same prolonged psychosis of our sleep-deprived brains that may have led to the Mirror Syndrome, but which has also induced a paranoia and mistrust of each other’s motives that has proven as impossible to dispel or disbelieve as the illusion of our tripartite self. My brain toggles crazily between the depth of my training, which has conditioned both self-reliance and absolute trust and dependence on my fellow crew members, and my impossible-to-ignore suspicions that this so-called Captain Wren and this alleged Engineer Liu are nothing less than inhuman monsters that have taken over the bodies of my shipmates, and which represent an existential threat to the human species. In this mood, I have to fight with all my strength the conviction that my duty as the only real human left on the ship is either to kill these chameleons before they kill me, or destroy the ship before it can enter Earth orbit. 

            A terrifying thought: what if the Mirror Syndrome isn’t caused by space at all, but by some unknown microorganism that can’t be detected by conventional means? What if it’s contagious? Should we take the risk of exposing others to this disease that dissolves identity and turns everything into itself?


Day 550: Something has happened to the ship’s engines, and neither Captain Wren nor Engineer Liu will respond to my requests for information. I heard the captain’s voice over the intercom last night, accusing “one of the beings impersonating him”—no doubt he was referring to Zhin-Yi—of sabotaging the engines, leaving us adrift in space, though life support is still functioning on battery power. He warned both of us, the “imposters,” to confine ourselves to our quarters, “Otherwise I will be forced to take the most drastic action in order to save the ship.” He told us that he is armed and prepared to use violence if necessary, and attempting to restart the engines with his limited knowledge of engineering. I’m not confident that he can, but remain hopeful.  Why doesn’t he confront Zhin-Yi and force her to repair the engines? Has she, too, armed herself?  I’ve locked the door to my cabin.


Day 555: Someone is pounding on my door with a heavy steel object, and I don’t how long it will hold. I have no defensive weapons, but there is a full syringe of morphine on the desk in front of me, which I intend to use on whoever is trying to… No, I can’t do that. It’s a fatal dose, and my medical oath was to preserve life, not take it. These are my shipmates, Capt. Wren and Zhin-Yi Liu. Or rather, they used to be, before they began masquerading as me. But Zhin-Yi has sabotaged the engines. Does this mean she believes that Capt. Wren and I are the monsters, and the mutinous action she has taken is to prevent the ship from reaching Earth and spreading the Mirror Syndrome to the entire human species? And if Capt. Wren is really trying to restart the engines, is this proof that he’s attempting, as he says, to complete the mission, or is his real purpose to spread the Mirror Syndrome to Earth, where it might undo two billion years of evolution and create one, immense, indivisible Being? Or is this a ruse, and they’re working as one? Can I even trust myself not to join them? 

            A loud scream outside, followed by the horrible crunch of steel on flesh, oh God, blow after blow, followed by silence. Now there’s a voice, softly speaking my name.  It’s my voice—mine—gently urging me, for the sake of the mission, to open the door. No, goddamn it, you’re not me! If I let it in, or give it time to break down the door, it will either kill me or force me to help it to get back to Earth. God forgive me. I know what I have to do.


About the Author

I was born in Michigan, grew up in Florida, and now live in Bethesda, Maryland. I’ve been writing and publishing mostly short stories and a few novellas since the 1980s. Twenty-five stories of mine can be found at Bewildering, four on decomP Magazine, and three at Altered Reality. 


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