Drift Madness

Drift Madness

Chris Daruns

“Hey, Doc, got a live one for you.”

James, her assistant, handed her the thin med pad and pointed her to holding cell five. Dr. Colleen Ellis frowned when she saw the name on the file’s title. As of two days ago that name was all the colony could talk about.

“You’re kidding.”

“Afraid not, he arrived this morning. It’s all uploaded there. The CG wants him interviewed before he gets sent back to Earth.”

Dr. Ellis snorted, “Earth won’t take him. According to the CG, he fled Earth after his wife was killed.”

James, looking at his own pad, said, “Yeah, in some sort of riot. Escaped with his daughter, Mia. Spent two days on a junker to Luna and boarded a ship called . . . here it is: the Urania.”

“Was it confirmed that he was sane before the CG picked him up?”

“No, it was not.”

“And he is the only survivor of the Urania?”

“Yes.”

They reached the door of holding cell five. Dr. Ellis noticed that James became uncomfortable at being near that door.

“Is he restrained?”

James nodded.

“Sedated?”

“Partially. The CG gave him Haldol a few hours ago. Captain Marcos is on his way too. If you need back up.”

She nodded and looked through the door’s window at her new patient. “I think I’ll be fine.”

The holding cell was a cross between a hospital room and a prison cell. There was a window inlaid with mesh wire but large enough to let daylight in. A bed and basic monitoring equipment were on one side of the room with a small sink and toilet on the other. A small table and two chairs dominated the center. Sitting in one of the chairs and secured with soft restraints to the table was her patient:  Coal Parson.

He was a tall, emaciated and frail-looking man with sunken cheeks and thin hair. He did not look at her when she sat down across from him. She opened the voice-recording program on her pad and set it on the table.

“Mr. Parson, my name is Dr. Colleen Ellis. I’m lead physician for this hospital and the Director of Medicine for this colony. I’m here to help you. There are a lot of people concerned about you. If you feel up to it, I want to ask you some questions.”

Coal Parson said nothing and continued to stare at his restraints. They formed a V from his wrists to the lock on the table’s surface. The table, but not the chairs, was bolted to the floor.

“Mr. Parson, do you know where you are?”

He whispered something that she could not hear.

“Could you please repeat that?”

“I said you can call me Coal.”

“Okay, Coal, do you know where you are?”

“Ctesiphon?”

“Yes. That’s right.”

“So, I made it?”  He looked at her for the first time. His eyes were sunken as if he’d not slept in weeks. Dr. Ellis supposed that probably was the case. She opened the main case folder on her pad. Urania was found after being adrift for nearly a month, on a trajectory with Ctesiphon from the system’s jump gate. The Colonial Guard’s slipboat, Speartip, boarded the Urania after she wouldn’t respond to being hailed. They found Coal in the cargo hold.

“Do you know why you’re here?”  Dr. Ellis knew the rest, as did most of the two thousand colonists on Ctesiphon. The rest of Urania’s crew was either dead or missing. Coal’s daughter was also missing. He was suspected of killing four people. With this room of the hospital being the most secure structure in the colony, he was brought here until it was decided what would become of him.

“I think so,” he whispered.

“It says here that you boarded the Urania with your daughter on Luna approximately four Earth months ago. There were three crewmembers of the ship, Captain Nathan Jonas, Pilot Shale Collins, and Engineer Harold Karr. I’d like you to tell me about them.”

Coal scrunched up his face as if tasting something bitter, “He lied to us.”

“Who lied?”

“Jonas. He said the jump chambers were safe.”

Jump chambers were safe. There hadn’t been an accident during a jump in ten years. Dr. Ellis could count all the known jump accidents on one hand.

“Something happened on the jump?”

“No!”  Both fists slammed the table.

She did not flinch.

“Nothing happened and that was the lie!  He told me her chamber malfunctioned. Him and Shale and that fat engineer. They lied. They took her!”

Dr. Ellis opened the picture file and scanned through photographs taken shortly after the Urania was boarded. One was of the body of Nathan Jonas, beaten to death in the engine room with a composite rod. Another was of Harold Karr, eviscerated and stuffed into a large trunk that also appeared to contain his collection of 21st century comic books. A third picture showed Coal, moments before he attacked and nearly blinded a deputy shipman. He looked about the same as he did now—only in the picture he was half-naked and covered in blood so dry it is black.

She kept her voice calm, “What do you mean, ‘took her’?”

“They wanted to sell her. But she escaped.”

“She escaped?”

“She told me what they planned to do.”

Dr. Ellis glanced back down at the pad. A doctor’s report from the sickbay of Speartip was the first and only medical documentation Coal had. She was trying to get a grip on what had happened:  Coal gets to Luna, boards a ship with his daughter, spends almost three months traveling outside the solar system to the first jump gate, and then misses the mark on the other side. The Urania drifts through space at a fraction of her speed, for another month, almost entirely powered down and is found by a slipboat as she meanders down a known flight path.

She scanned Speartip’s medical report on Coal. Phrases like ‘exhibits aggression’ and ‘isolation-induced paranoia’ and ‘visual hallucinations’ jumped out at her.

“Where is your daughter now?”

Coal said nothing.

“I have the Urania’s log here,” she continued, motioning to the pad. She tapped at it a few times and was reading the ship’s log with Captian Jonas’ footnotes. It was a boring read because it was mostly the ship’s vitals as recorded by the computer—atmospheric pressure, O2 content, fuel reserves, engine output, water distillation and the like. She tapped a footnote made by Jonas a month earlier, the day Urania exited the jump gate on the Ctesiphon side.

17:35 S.E.T. Passenger Mia Parson declared dead due to suspension chamber defect resulting in abnormal physical reconstitution. Due to lack of preservation equipment, body buried in space 22:45 S.E.T. Full report to follow.

                It seemed that Captain Jonas never wrote that report.

Dr. Ellis sighed, “It appears as though your daughter died in an accident aboard the ship. I want you to tell me about it.”

“That . . . thing was not her. It was not my daughter!  It was a trick. That fat fuck Karr said she got scrambled. Said it happens sometimes. Can you believe that?  He even made himself cry. How callous is that?”

“Accidents with jump chambers are indeed rare. The first one happened in 2089, they—”

“It wasn’t her!”  He slammed his fists again. Again, the padded restraints held. “That thing they shown me wasn’t her!”

Dr. Ellis remembered a case study she read once about a patient named Cameron Renner, one of the original colonists on the first manned ship to leave Earth’s solar system. Back then they used suspension chambers for the long journey between stars. His malfunctioned and woke him too early. He spent 27 years alone inside a tin can. His case was still unique—nobody knew how exactly he survived. The doctor of the ship did a report on him that eventually got back to Earth and to other colonies. Cameron had severe signs of paranoia, insomnia, a smattering of social disorders and even suffered from visual hallucinations brought on by lack of stimuli. The mind trying to keep itself sane.

He was diagnosed as having drift madness. He was the first known case after Russian cosmonaut Oleg Atkov spent 237 days in 1986 in low-Earth orbit and ‘got a little confused’ according to documents released in 2021.

The man in front of her was no astronaut. He’d undergone absolutely zero training for the stresses of space travel and it was pure luck that he was able to escape Earth in the first place.

She watched him for a few moments in the same manner she would an animal behind Plexiglas—with interest and curiosity, waiting to see if he’d continue talking or fall silent.

He chose the latter and went back to staring at his hands.

“How does it feel being on solid ground again?  Does it feel good?”

Coal nodded, his eyes searching the room and finding a focal point just over her shoulder.

“Better than being on that small ship?”

Another nod.

“That’s because you’re safe here. In fact, if you talk to me, I’ll do my best to make sure you never have to go on another ship ever again. You can stay here. There’s a lot to learn about this planet and there’s a lot of friendly people here who would like to teach you. Would you like that?”

“I . . . I lost everything to get here.”

“I know Coal. I heard about your wife. I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

He nodded, tears beginning form in the corners of his eyes.

“You stayed strong for your daughter, didn’t you?”

“I tried.”

“It sounds like you cared an awful lot for her.”

“She was the only thing I had left. We were going to start over here.”

Dr. Ellis nodded in understanding. He used the past tense in reference to his daughter and that was a good thing. Whatever would be said later, in that moment, she did understand him and she empathized.

“Please. Tell me what happened after the jump?”

“After the trick?”

“Yes, after that too.”

“Well, Mia came to me and told me they had to be punished. They had locked me in my room because I got upset during their little trick and Mia came and showed me how to escape. I got Karr alone in the engine room. I hated him because he pretended to be Mia’s friend, letting her read his comic books. Mia told me about the wiring inside one of the panels and she told me how to get back at them. I cut some wires and the whole ship went dark. Then the Captain came after me and I tricked him in the engine room and got him too. I got him good because he was the leader and he thought he was better than me because he was a spacer.”

Coal went blank and stopped talking.

“What happened to Shale?”  Like Mia’s, her body hadn’t been found.

“That was hard. I really wanted to let her in. I think she went outside to repair something on the ship. I don’t remember what wires I cut. I didn’t let her back in though. I wanted to because I thought she liked me and I thought I liked her. I was wrong though. She was just using me.”

“What happened after?”

“Then we got to be together.”

“You and your daughter?”

Coal nodded.

Dr. Ellis struggled to comprehend the depth of Coal’s psychosis. Occasionally, as one of only seven medical doctors in the colony, she had to diagnose mental illness. Until now it was never because of a violent crime and never so severe.  She opened another picture from the Urania. This one was taken by either Captain Jonas or Harold Karr. Seeing it made her draw in a deep breath out of shock. Even though she’d seen her share of the gruesome and grotesque in being a medical doctor and treating new and exciting diseases on this planet, she still wasn’t prepared.

In the picture, Shale Collins is kneeling next to an indefinable mass laying on the deck. She is frozen, looking at the camera instead of the pink mass next to her. She’s crying. At first, Dr. Ellis did not realize what she was looking at, and then she inhaled. Her eyes picked out landmarks on the mass—tufts of hair, blue varicose veins running up one side of it, schisms of crooked skin leaking pus, a row of small teeth and a puffy tongue poking out above them—and she realized the picture was of Mia.

“And Mia talks to you?” Dr. Ellis closed the picture, unable to look at it.

“Yes.”

“What does she say?”

Coal reached out and took her hands. Dr. Ellis let him and even squeezed back. They were surprisingly warm. He smiled and made eye contact.

“She tells me we’re almost home. And that it’s going to be wonderful.”

Dr. Ellis was about to say something, something comforting, but she looked down.

The restraints were no longer around Coal’s wrists.

***

Chris works as an EMT when he is not writing, studying, or goofing off in the mountains with his girlfriend and dog.  He’s recently been published in SNM Horror Magazine and in the upcoming anthology, Zombies Gone Wild.

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