A red indicator light caught my eye, jarring me to sudden alertness. It hadn’t been on the last time I had scanned that array. I leaned across the padded armrest of the captain’s chair to flick it a couple of times with my fingernail.
No luck. My go-to method for spaceship repair had failed.
“Talk to me, Hal. What’s going on?” I called up towards the ceiling.
“The oxygen sensor in holding tank 4BZ-9 is registering a malfunction, Doctor,” answered the ship’s computer in a toneless voice. “May I remind you that it is traditional for crewmembers to refer to me by the name of the ship?”
“I’ll start calling you Excelsior when you choose to call me Stan,” I said distractedly. “Hey, are we all going to die?”
It felt like there was a momentary hesitation before the computer answered, but it might have just been my anxious imagination. “If the malfunction were the result of a catastrophic hull breach in the compartment, you would be dead already.”
That was likely as reassuring as a computer could be. I scowled at the red light again for a long moment, tapped it once more just in case, and then picked back up the trashy romance novel I was reading.
“Excuse me, Doctor, but aren’t you going to investigate?”
I sighed. “Hal, what’s my area of expertise?”
“You are a doctor of psychiatry with specialties in depression, anxiety, and stress.”
“Any of that strike you as relevant to this problem? I’m barely competent to plunge a toilet.”
“But you are the only member of the command crew awake for the duration of this deep space rotation.”
“So you’re saying I need to go take a look?”
“I would not presume to dictate your responsibilities, Doctor.”
I could have almost sworn the computer was mocking me. Next, I’d start psychoanalyzing the damn thing like it was one of my human patients. I gave another sigh dramatic enough to make any teenager proud and closed my book after dog-earing the page. I liked the tactile feel of paper, and no one else was awake to chastise me for killing trees.
“Guide me?” I asked.
“Of course, Doctor.”
I stood, putting my hands on my hips and arching my back to stretch out the kinks. No matter how comfy a chair might be, sitting was still sitting. I had suggested a more ergonomic choice but was overruled. It wouldn’t be “professional” enough. When the ship’s engineer insisted on a shiny new geegaw, nobody thought twice. If the shrink wanted it, somehow everyone felt comfortable dismissing it as touchy-feely and non-essential.
After a few torso twists, my back cracked with an audible pop. I guess I was ready to face a problem that I almost certainly would be unable to resolve.
No pressure, right?
A row of mint green dots glowed gently to guide me from the cockpit. I followed them through the hatch and down the main corridor.
Long rectangular windows broke up the monotony of the white ceramic panels that lined the hallway. Each one displayed the blackness of space speckled with a few pinpricks of white stars. I took grim satisfaction in seeing them. So what if they weren’t real?
I endured a ton of flak about wanting those windows during construction. I only won in the end because vid screens built to look like windows were no more expensive than the panels they replaced. At worst, we could always make them display a white wall. I had considered arguing that we should build the whole ship out of vid screens but decided to accept my victory gracefully. I did partake in a small amount of gloating in private.
For the past decade, generation ships lost an average of one crew member a week to nervous collapse or other mental disorders during the difficult transit away from our home planet. It took 40 weeks for a human-crewed vehicle to break free of the sun’s gravity well. After we left our solar system, the crew went into cryosleep for the remainder of the voyage. Officers were placed in stasis unless we were on our scheduled duty rotations.
On Earth, the jokes about spotting aliens and UFOs out the windows were endless. Then, we launched. A week passed with no psychological issues. Then two weeks. Three. Some thought it was a fluke, but nobody wanted to jinx it.
Frankly, they didn’t get the simple beauty of my solution. The faux windows made you feel like you were flying through space. We were all intrepid explorers, discovering the mysteries of the universe. Not endlessly locked in a claustrophobic metal box.
We made it all forty weeks without a single nervous breakdown. I accepted my congratulatory medal and was assured that future generation ships would incorporate my innovation. Afterward, the crew was put to sleep as planned, leaving only a single officer awake for rotating biweekly shifts.
Unfortunately for me, a magic show is a lot less exciting when you were the one who set up all the strings and mirrors. I knew I was stuck here in a box, bored and alone. What good was a psychologist when no one else was awake?
I was relieved when the windows ended as I reached the main body of the ship. Even though I doubted that the problem was time-sensitive, I found myself speeding up to a steady jog.
To my left, another hallway intersected with mine, the one leading to the mechanical rooms. I considered making a detour to pick up tools. My brain unhelpfully supplied an image of me, armed with a monkey wrench, trying to repair a meteor strike. I passed by without stopping.
The guide strip led me past the crew quarters where the other officers were held in stasis and then cold storage, where the passengers were ensconced. My heart rate had climbed above the cadence of my feet striking the floor.
Despite the mandatory daily workouts, I was still winded by the time I reached the cargo bays.
The green markers ended at the foot of a sealed hatch labeled 4BZ-9. I reached for the control panel beside the door but hesitated. “Hal?”
“Is it safe to open this door?”
I again wished that there was an agreed-upon place to look when talking to the ship’s computer. My suggestion of a blinking light on the closest interface had been overruled. There wasn’t supposed to be any non-essential interaction between the computer and the crew.
Standing in the empty corridor wasn’t going to fix anything. I gritted my teeth and slapped my hand on the wall scanner. The door slid open with a mechanical hiss.
A claxon sounded, blaring and insistent. I instinctively covered my ears with my hands to block the sound. The moment I peered into the room, and a flurry of colors exploded out towards me.
I stumbled backward two steps and fell flat on my ass in shock. My heart skipped a beat.
“SURPRISE!” blared a computerized voice.
Confetti fluttered through the air around me, gently settling on my hair and uniform like butterflies.
“Welcome to your surprise party, Doctor,” said the ship’s computer in its infuriatingly calm tone.
I grasped for words and came up empty. My jaw hung open. A piece of bright blue confetti fell into my mouth.
“I have analyzed your professional publications, Doctor, and I believe a party is what you would have proscribed for a patient with your constellation of symptoms.”
“What symptoms?” I asked after spitting out the paper. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You have become frustrated and irritable over simple matters—losing interest in former hobbies. You have a reduced appetite and unexplained physical problems such as backaches and soreness. Sleep--”
I finally felt grounded enough to cut in. “Hal, you’re listing symptoms for depression. But I’m not depressed.”
“My programming suggests that if I have concerns about an individual, I must share them with onboard medical staff. However, I could not in this case.”
I leaned back against the bulkhead behind me and closed my eyes for a moment. “So you decided to diagnose me yourself. And your course of treatment was to throw me a surprise party.”
“So there’s no oxygen leak?”
“A proper surprise party requires a simple but believable ruse to lure the guest of honor to a designated location.”
Anger and relief warred for primacy. I finally decided to just go with the flow. “Fine. Let’s party.”
I climbed awkwardly to my feet and entered the room. Inside, streamers festooned the walls, and a three-tiered cake sat on a small table. I wandered closer to see the words “Have a Great Day, Stan!” written across the top in bubble letters.
“Well, look at that,” I said. “You called me Stan.”
“I did not think a party guest would refer to you as ‘Doctor.’”
I ran an index finger through the icing and popped it into my mouth. “What made you pick a surprise party of all things? Why not just slip an antidepressant into my oatmeal?”
“I am not authorized to dispense prescription medication without sign-off from the chief medical officer. Research in my database suggested that novel experiences can often create positive and lasting memories. Feeling important or needed can also produce endorphins, hence the improvised emergency leading you here.”
“Pretty clever given your restrictions. We’ll make a psychiatrist of you yet.”
“Does this mean you are feeling better? Are you able to function at full capacity for the remainder of your two-week command session?”
I grinned and picked up a silver cake knife. “Yes to both. Do you think you could run this scenario for the others? I’d love to see the look on Commander Benson’s face when he opened the door.”
“In your capacity as the ship’s doctor, you could certainly prescribe that course of treatment. I will make a note to record the reactions of the party-goers for your review and evaluation.”
Laughing to myself, I cut myself a slice and admired the decorations. “I’m not sure all this was necessary, but I appreciate the effort Excelsior.”
“You are welcome, Doctor Stan.”
“Close enough,” I said around a mouthful of cake.