The Overview Effect

Dolores followed the instructions from Ground Control and brewed the mushrooms into a tea.

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Nov 17 2014, 3:15pm

​Art: ​Gustavo Torres 

Dolores followed the instructions from Ground Control and brewed the mushrooms into a tea. A bit more complicated than just chewing the caps and stems, but they needed methods consistent with Earth trials. Free from gravity, the teakettle boil was one giant undulating bubble, moving sinuously as a sea creature. She watched it, fascinated, and once the water was ready, reached into a cabinet marked "Overview Trials: Psylocibin 017" and grabbed the first bag of vacuum-packed brown powder.

She had to laugh. The lab had deconstructed the mushrooms, somehow transmuting their essence into a measurable substance, and sealed them in a plastic bag—in orbit now, miles above the Earth. When she was a kid, she'd just found them popping out of the mossy loam of old-growth forest near her house and gobbled them. They'd been wet, pungent with the eldritch aroma of fungus, a little horrifying, but also simple. A food. It had been such a long time ago.

"Dolores, requesting status."

Instinctively, Dolores turned towards the source of the voice, but it was nowhere and everywhere, emanating from the entire ship: a gentle lilt, male. An artificial intelligence called MR9, designed never to surprise the psychonaut as it perpetually observed her observing the Earth, compiling reports and sending them back to Ground Control in real-time.

"Everything progressing normally, Mister-Nine. Just laughing at a personal observation. No airborne effect."

The tea, a little bitter, still managed to taste earthy, although that distinction seemed ridiculous. Doesn't all food taste "Earthy"? She pulled herself across the kitchen, through the corridor, into the viewing room. After lacing herself into the hammock, she clipped the long plastic straw of the tea container into place and settled, shadowing the arc of the grand cupola window with the curve of her body.

The hammock didn't swing; it ebbed, aimlessly, to the reaches of its tethers. For all she had learned about how the station functioned, it still felt as though the Earth was spinning like a toy ball beneath this window. She sipped and watched the sun rise and set over and over again. Expectant. She didn't really feel the mushrooms yet.

During the Earth trials, someone told her that being in orbit was just falling around the planet forever. Back in the safe house somewhere in the Midwest, with 2,000 milligrams of MDMA ricocheting across her brain stem, it wasn't practical information. But she had retained it. Ground Control didn't know the first thing about throwing a party. The drugs were free, but those nights on Earth always ended with psychonauts sobbing in the corners of the room, touching each others' faces in the darkness. Of course, the Earth was falling too—around the sun.

MR9 to Ground Control: Subject Dolores has initiated Psylocibin Trial 017 under my supervision. Physiological systems customary for this stage of inducement. Mood appears stable. Maintaining Low-Earth Orbit.

In fact everything was falling. Dolores felt the familiar glow of the mushrooms coming on now: a small piercing feeling spreading from her jaw, like a thirst, to warm the active muscles of her body. Nausea.

Slowly, her pulse quickened. Or did it slow, quickly? With no room to pace off the sensation, she began to do as she had been taught, focusing her awareness out of the window and at the Earth, below, beside, above.

How could she be certain that she wasn't falling closer and closer towards the Earth with every passing moment? It never looked the same twice. When she first met Astrid, it was like that: She would look away for an instant, only to discover, by the time she had turned back, someone entirely new sitting before her. An Astrid holding a fork, perhaps, or an Astrid talking to animals.

She would stare in wonder at this magnificent stranger, trying to memorize her. There were endless Astrids in that first year they were together. Later she'd found the pattern, like pinning the instant where a video loop begins: they were all the same Astrid, from different angles. Astrid herself was unchanging, stubborn, always on her case about something—

"Mister?"

"Hello, Dolores."

"Access literary database."

A hum indicated the Artificial Intelligence registering the request. MR9 was programmed as a documentarian and steward, but there had been enough bandwidth left over to accommodate Dolores' personal library, complete with its arcane filing system, ported straight from her mental map. Whatever wasn't in storage, she could summon with a brief relay to Earth. It'd have to switch to a different modality, and Dolores waited while the thousands of recording sensors shifted into autopilot. Ground Control would have full record of this, and would spend months analyzing her choice, but she was accustomed to being observed. They'd seen her naked with a lampshade on her head enough times by now.

"What would you like?"

"European, Seventeenth Century. Poetry."

"Metaphysical or Cavalier?"

Dolores grimaced. "Metaphysical."

"Would you like me to make a selection?"

"No, no. John Donne. Elegy 20, please. Scrub forward twelve stanzas."

MR9 to Ground Control: Psylocibin sample 017 appears to be metabolized. Pupils are dilated. Heart rate has increased ten percent. Subject has requested Metaphysical poetry; transcriptions under Dolores Media Selections file 0-24.

Two tones of hold music and then Mister-Nine read, in clinically accurate meter:

" O, my America, my Newfoundland,
My kingdom, safest when with one man mann'd,
My mine of precious stones, my empery;
How am I blest in thus discovering thee!…Shall I continue?"

Dolores had always felt that love was a process of imprinting. Of consuming every inch of another person until they could be completely recreated as a sensory experience in the mind. Impossible, of course, but the desire is real, to learn every arc and smell, every gesture, to plunder and to map. At some point the person becomes known, completely, like a continent, and that's where the new world ends.

Earth loomed massively in the window. She couldn't see it all at once, not like the old-generation astronauts did from their loftier vantage points. They had called it a marble then, and blotted it out with their thumbs as they loped across the moon. That was long before she was born, long before that business at the University, before the drugs, before the trials, before Astrid.

A hard line of darkness swept across the planet, swallowing continents into night. Dolores shuffled in the hammock, swaying towards the window. There, a tawny shoulder of Africa, partially obscured by clouds, coquette. There, edges of the atmosphere, fluid and strange, dancing over the brutal blue Atlantic. And now America.

First the proboscis of the Cape that had launched her, leering into the sea, then planes of brown dotted with lakes, the open fields of her childhood. She felt the drugs coming on hard now. Vast deserts where she and Astrid had camped, sorely under-equipped, huddling together under the piercing stars.

She pawed at the glass as the continent spooled below, the deserts slipping into mountain ranges, into California, and then the Pacific.

"My America!" howled Dolores, missing it already.

"Shall I continue with the poem?"

She swept her arm like an animal towards the nowhere voice.

"To hell with it! I know it by heart."

MR9 to Ground Control: Subject has entered a heightened state. Qualitative somatic effects are spiking across the board. Subject appears to be experiencing mild effects of synesthesia in conjunction with an intensification of affective response and a regression to primitive and childlike behaviors.

The first astronauts to see this view returned home with stories: mystical visions, stunning moments of connectedness, seeing the planet without boundary or language. It was powerful; it changed those men forever. They called it the "Overview Effect." Dolores was studying its modulations; or rather MR9 was, watching Dolores as she brayed and tripped in the capsule day after day and Astrid went on living among the spinning billions below.

Astrid had never been a fan of psychedelics. They'd done acid once, in the early months of their courtship. When it came on, she had gone very quiet and spent an hour looking at her reflection from every angle in mute horror. Finally Dolores had drawn her away from the bathroom and they'd gone to the park, where the grass ebbed and the edges of the clouds slipped like mist into the air. Astrid was afraid; she thought it was too beautiful, that it would someday end. Holding her close, Dolores had reassured her, like a fool, that nothing as beautiful as this ever could.

Images of Astrid fell into Dolores' mind like a sheaf of paper falls to the floor. Astrid's long limbs folded beneath her as she read. Astrid in the light through their blankets as they fought off the day. Astrid staking out the last piece of sushi. Astrid crying quietly on her side of the bed. Astrid, Astrid, Astrid: on the launchpad, hurling Dolores into space with her eyes.

MR9 to Ground Control: Coincident with significant hypotension, subject seems to have entered a subjective experience of the passage of time. All biometric sensors indicate that she is prepared for questioning. Initiating formal phase of trial.

Mister-Nine cooed:

"What about the Earth, Dolores? What would you like to tell me about the Earth today?"

Dolores was laughing, her hands knotted into the tethers of the hammock in sweaty claws, laughing with tears in her eyes, a laughter that seamlessly became a sob, and then only sobbing, her shrieks growing ragged as she fell and fell around the stupid blue marble. 

What about the Earth? All she saw when she looked out the window was where they used to live.

This dispatch is a part of Terraform, our new online home for future fiction.