Author Joe Williams uses the UM original “Visions” as inspiration for this highly entertaining sci-fi short. Read an excerpt here on our blog and head over to the Post Mortem Press to download a free ebook copy (you can also check out his works based on Grateful Dead & Tea Leaf Green songs).
They had a name for losing your sanity in the crowded nothingness of space.
It came from an astronaut folktale which was routinely dismissed as foolishness by most of the men and likewise contained unfortunate truths none of them were willing to confront, but they had all heard of it and they all used the term at one time or another regardless. In the old days, there’d been many names for it. Cabin fever was a particular favorite. But that was back before the truth revealed himself, and before the severity of the symptoms increased.
It was all different in space.
If a man or woman aboard a ship grew noticeably, persistently distracted and stared out into the salt-dusted universe for several minutes at a time, they had seen Parin. If they began to suffer from insomnia, instances of heightened irritation, aggression, or paranoia, they’d seen Parin.
And if they began to scream from their very depths, as though calling back across the great black sea to their home world; if they fired their weapons in the engine compartment or murdered their brothers and sisters with their hands and teeth; if they began to tear out their own eyes and tongues and carved strange, para-geometric symbols into their flesh with their own fingernails, then they hadn’t just seen Parin. They’d touched him.
No one in the fleet was exactly sure when this chilling mental epidemic had taken on the name of Parin, but they all knew it was right.
A terrestrial name. Not common by any stretch of the imagination, but not exactly uncommon anymore, either. No exotic god or goddess had borne the name like Jupiter or Mars or Venus, making them clichés of thought and metaphor to prove distinction across the ages. Commander Arthur Dawson had never come in contact with it in any manner, in fact, before his last assignment, not even when his wife had tossed around possible names for their twins.
Yet now, adrift in the black sea, he heard more of it than he’d ever wanted, and not just in the half-joking accusations among his men that one or another of them was suffering those cursed ‘visions of Parin.’ He had his own reasons to ponder the phenomena seriously.
There hadn’t been much else to think about the morning it happened. Dawson had been in his room in the bowels of the ship after a draining workout, staring out from his window at the distant stars and trying to find his home. Every few minutes, he forced himself away from this minor hypnosis and sipped at a bad cup of coffee without thought or emotion, but it was never long before his gaze returned to the unfathomable enormity. He allowed it to consume him.
When he came up for these interludes, the usual questions asserted themselves in the forefront of his thoughts and he would trouble over them a while.
How much longer would they be out wandering the Devil’s Playground?
How many miles separated him from the warm bed where his wife slept and dreamed all-too-probable nightmares of his death?
What did his children look like now, three years since he’d set eyes on them in person?
He imagined these were the surface questions troubling every member of the crew. The usual preoccupations of men and women at sea. It was the other questions though, the deeper questions, that kept him awake at night, and being awake at night had started the questions in the first place.
One in particular haunted him in his increasingly unsuccessful sleep attempts: How could he tell whether it was night or day?
They were in another galaxy, one devoid of clocks as far as he could tell, and it was impossible (or at least foolish) to mark each time zone and orbit through which they passed. There was a clock in the war room and one in the cockpit, one outside of the movie theater, a couple more in the library and in the cafeteria, and maybe a dozen other places throughout the vessel, but they were all just guessing. The ship had run into an electrical storm unlike any in recorded history, out on a planet which had not yet been named (but which had henceforth been known as ‘The Shithole’ or ‘The Dirty Bitch’ among the crew). Even Dawson’s watch had fried, though he continued to wear it. He guessed it was a habit, but something also told him he might need it again someday.
They’d been out of power for a little over six minutes. Those were the longest minutes of his life. Dawson had expected to feel a new sense of purpose afterwards, like the emergency room patient who legally expires for a time and then returns to live a more meaningful life, but that hadn’t been the case. There was a peculiar emptiness throughout the ship in the aftermath. The crew had been certain they were all going to die, and then the lights returned and the oxygen spat through the vents once more.