VISIONS OF PARIN


JOSEPH WILLIAMS

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 women 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.

Parin.

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, which 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.

It was strange, Commander Dawson reflected, but he’d sensed a not so subtle disappointment among the crew when their electrical systems came back online. Perhaps they thought it would have been better to get dying over with right then, after they’d already psyched themselves up for that dark and lonesome journey. Now that they didn’t know for sure what time it was, or whether they were sleeping through the day instead of the night or eating breakfast packets for dinner, there didn’t seem much sense in going on. All it took to turn them upside down and inside out was six minutes (inexact) of wondering whether or not dying on another planet (uncharted) would turn them into ghosts without anything or anyone to haunt but the wind and the lightning. Because they thought it had been six minutes, but it could have been six hours for all they knew. They couldn’t trust time.

And that was just one of the questions keeping Dawson awake at night. The nighttime hours, and he used that term loosely, were no longer for missing his wife and children (although he often imagined his wife bedding around while he was away). They were for wondering what would happen to his body if he died during a spacewalk. Would it just float there until they returned home, like a fetal corpse attached by an electronic umbilical cord to its mother? They only had one suit left for walking. The others had been lost when the insects of another godforsaken world had eaten two of the ships’ well-respected scientists. There wouldn’t be any way to release the dead from the hull, nor would anyone want to set them adrift into damnation. They couldn’t risk bringing the bodies inside, either, because they weren’t equipped for storing corpses. There was nothing to do but hope it wouldn’t come to that.

It was no wonder he couldn’t sleep.

Still more terrible questions were forming in his diseased mind when Private Matthews burst into the room so suddenly that Dawson spilled the bad coffee all over his leg.

“There you are, sir!” Matthews panted.

Dawson groaned and bit back a curse as the burn trickled down his calf. He wanted to kick the kid out right then, maybe give him a swift kick in the ass for his troubles, too. Teach him a lesson. Just then, he didn’t give two cents’ worth of fuck for what the little shit private had to say. He wanted his goddamned leg to stop throbbing.

“They told me to come find you. Someone’s going ape-shit on the crew deck. They think he offed someone,” Matthews said. He looked like he’d just woken up, and Dawson guessed he’d fallen asleep at his post and missed something crucial because of it, otherwise he wouldn’t have sounded so frantic. He was huffing and puffing like his ass was on the line.

“I’m not C.O. right now, Matthews. And don’t yell like that in here again.”

“I’m pretty sure it was the C.O. who sent me to get you, sir.”

The boy had calmed considerably now that he thought the commander had reverted to his usual, brusque self.

“Who’s on duty?”

“Commander Chalmers.”

The burn of the coffee had dissipated to little more than a hot throb on Dawson’s inner thigh, and the urge to lash out at the boy had mercifully subsided for the moment. After all, if anyone was to blame for interrupting his rec time one hour into a thirty-six hour reprieve, it certainly wasn’t this sack-of-shit messenger boy. Commander Chalmers, maybe. Whatever crazy bastard had dropped his marbles on the crew deck, absolutely. But not Tom Matthews, the frail, butt-of-every-joke, acne-scarred nobody whose facial structure alone ensured the wrath of any human being who looked upon him.

“What happened?” Dawson said over his shoulder on his way out the door. No time to waste, he thought. They’d need the elevator to get to the crew deck and the bitch took a good five minutes to arrive no matter the time of day. Never-ending elevator traffic was one of the many drawbacks to life on a crowded ship.

“I don’t know. I didn’t see anything. Commander Chalmers just yelled at me to come and get you.”

Matthews was struggling to keep up with Dawson’s long strides, and his nerves weren’t helping him articulate. “They said he’s seen Parin,” he added.

“Don’t whisper in front of me, Private. You want to tell secrets, tell them to your boyfriend.”

“Sorry, sir. I said they think he’s seen Parin.”

“Horseshit,” Dawson snapped, smacking the call button for the elevator a half-dozen times. “Don’t listen to that crap, Matthews, and don’t go on spreading it yourself.”

“Sorry, sir. I meant they think he’s gone insane.”

“Who?”

“I’m not sure.”

Dawson nodded thoughtfully and adjusted his wet pants to a comfortable tug. “Nothing strange about losing your mind out here. And it doesn’t take a god to turn your world upside down, either. Not when you’re a billion miles from home and the only thing separating you from death is a foot or two of steel.”

Matthews nodded slowly, looked at his feet, and frowned. Dawson could tell by the way his legs stiffened that the boy believed in the dark god with every ounce of his being. Maybe Matthews wasn’t so far from seeing Parin himself.

Maybe he was just waiting for the right push.

With that in mind, Dawson decided against telling him how they were probably upside down already and it was probably three o’clock in the morning, the demonic witching hour, even though the clock outside the locker room showers said eight forty-seven a.m. It was all just a lie, anyway. They probably didn’t even exist at all. They’d probably run out of oxygen on that uncharted planet and this was just a continuation in Hell of their never-ending voyage. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, he thought, as long as he knew for sure whether or not it was the truth.

The elevator arrived much faster than usual. They both stepped in and stood on opposite ends of the car with four feet of tension walled up between them. As soon as the doors shut, they lapsed into silence for a full minute, which might have stretched all the way to the crew deck if they hadn’t heard the screams above them.

“Jesus…” Dawson muttered. His jaw tensed.

“What do you think’s happening up there?” Matthews asked. He tried to keep his voice level, tried very hard in fact, but he couldn’t keep it from faltering.

Dawson hated scared little pussies like him.

“I don’t know but there’s no use crying about it.”

He meant for the remark to be demeaning, but either the intent or the words themselves (perhaps both) were lost on Matthews. The idea of living, breathing insanity on the other side of the elevator door was too much for him to process so soon after waking. Or maybe it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back and Parin was beginning to reveal himself. It wouldn’t have been the first time in Dawson’s tour of duty, or even on that same ship, that one of his men had gone insane simply because they’d heard someone else had lost touch with reality (or had a ‘vision of Parin,’ to use the crew’s terminology) and began to think a little too hard about what exactly defined reality in the uncharted reaches of space.

“I think we’ve gone too far,” Matthews whispered, pulling Dawson out of his drifting thoughts.

“What do you mean?” the commander asked. He wanted to sound angry, irritated, maybe even threatening, but the boy had caught him off guard.

“I think we should turn around even if they don’t want us to yet. I think we’re getting too close to the edge.”

Edge of what? the commander wondered. He didn’t like where the private was taking him.

Before either of them realized what was happening, Dawson’s right fist pistoned forward and connected solidly with Matthew’s left cheekbone.

The effect was immediate and satisfying for Dawson, more from the contact than anything. It made him feel sane. The errand boy fell against the side of the elevator in an ugly heap, his legs bent beneath him like he’d collapsed trying to win a limbo competition. He wasn’t unconscious yet but he was well on his way and was certainly dazed enough that he wouldn’t offer another suggestion like that one, a suggestion which rang with a little too much truth for comfort.

But something else had been triggered by the blow, too.

When the electronic light and the voice somewhere beyond it alerted Commander Dawson he’d arrived at the crew deck and to please follow all sanitation procedures in public areas, he heard the other voice for the first time. It was really more of a feeling than a voice in the beginning, but it rang in his ears just the same. His bowels clenched violently.

The door opened.

The overhead lights were out. He had time enough to wonder if it was a repeat of the electrical storm and they were once more at the mercy of the ship’s stored oxygen reserves (running dangerously thin already), and then he realized that not all of the lights were out. The emergency lights were flashing red all around the hallway in six-second intervals. That was a positive sign, at least. During the electrical storm, the ship had been completely dark except for their flashlights.

Dawson stood completely still in the elevator until the doors began to close, looking for any movement in the hellish half-light, and then he stepped one pace out into the corridor with his hands held defensively in front of him.

He couldn’t see or hear anyone down the hall yet, but he knew the emergency lights had been triggered on the crew deck itself, so he hesitated another moment to make sure no one was waiting for him in the dark.

Stepping gingerly into the common area before the elevator, a space which normally teemed with activity at all hours of the day and night but which was now completely abandoned, it occurred to Dawson that maybe it hadn’t been a smart move to punch out Private Matthews, and not just because he was a commander and the excessive violence would reflect poorly on his record, not to mention lower the crew’s morale. He had forgotten to get the boy’s comm link to contact Commander Chalmers and find out what the hell was happening down here and why no one was around.

“As if you don’t already know,” the new voice in his head pointed out.

But it was too late to go back there. Now that he’d finally coaxed himself through his foreboding and left Matthews’ uncomfortable suggestions behind, he knew he couldn’t return to the elevator. Not even to get a weapon, and he had a strong feeling he would need one before too long.

All he could do now to save face on the security camera (which may not have been working but one could never be too careful) was to continue the investigation. He’d find out what happened, settle the soldier down, in restraints if necessary, and report back to Chalmers that the situation had been handled and he should take care of his own goddamned problems the next time he thought about pulling a tired C.O. off of his rec time.

“Then call him now,” the voice urged. “You already know what happened. They’ve seen Parin.”

The name alone made Dawson shudder, even more so when it came from his own thoughts. Most of the time, it was easy enough to dismiss old wives’ tales about alien gods named Parin who haunted the dreams of homesick sailors of the great beyond, but walking through a dark, deserted hallway a billion miles from home with an unknown voice prying into his head had Commander Dawson feeling decidedly superstitious.

The screams which suddenly erupted down the hall didn’t help, either.

His hand immediately went to his hip, feeling for a weapon or a comm link to request backup, but he didn’t have either device.

“Help! Jesus Christ, please help!” someone cried out. The scream came from the exercise room. The sheer volume of the echo could not have originated anywhere else.

“Is that how you know?” the foreign voice mocked.

Dawson shrugged it aside and limped to cover along the wall as swiftly as his throbbing leg would allow.

Another scream erupted followed by piercing, witch-like laughter. The sound was beyond unsettling. It defied definition.

He stole a couple of hesitant steps backward towards the elevator and wondered if he’d hit Matthews harder than he’d thought because he couldn’t hear anything at all from that direction. Just the perpetual hum from the engine room on the other side of the ship and the occasional scream up ahead.

“You know who it is.”

“Shut up!” Dawson hissed aloud. His hands were trembling. He realized he must have spilled more coffee than he’d initially thought, too, because there was a damp warmth between his fingers he hadn’t noticed until that moment.

“He’s at the window, Commander,” the voice told him. “Why don’t you go and see him?”

Dawson squeezed his eyes shut and tried to block it out before he pissed himself and ran off wailing.

“Go and see him, Commander. Go see what time it really is.”

Dawson shook his head emphatically to drown out the voice, steeled himself, and took a few shambling steps around the corner towards the screams.

The entire corridor on the east wing was dark save for one bright line slanting out from the exercise room. The door must have been disabled, Dawson thought, because the entire ship had automatic doors that shut when they weren’t in use. Most rooms (he couldn’t remember, in his heightened emotional state, whether the exercise room was among them) even required a code to enter. He guessed this was a precaution to keep out hostile alien forces, but Dawson was also beginning to suspect something had made its way inside regardless.

The light from the doorway was blinding in the darkness, but not so bright as to distract the commander from the splashes of red on the floor and walls surrounding the room, as though something had been slopped in paint and plaster then dragged across the floor.

“You know what that is, too,” the voice mocked him.

Dawson’s grimaced. “Who are you?” he asked.

“Fucking Christ! Help me!” the soldier screamed.

The piercing witch’s laughter followed, so near to the commander that it took him a few moments to realize the sound had come from his own throat.

He continued down the hall toward the exercise room…or rather, his legs continued their monotonous shuffle onward without any direction from his brain. The rest of his body was content with leaking, which only explained the wetness on his hands and the draining of his bladder in the loosest of terms. Tears streamed down his cheeks unheeded and the screams continued from the room ahead. Thoughts leaked out his ears.

He was almost there.

Before he could reach the light, however, he realized that his feet were sliding through something solid and wet on the floor, a hunkered shape that had been carelessly discarded like so much gristle and fat.

“You know what it is, Commander, and you know who I am, and you know what you’re going to find in there, don’t you?”

“Who are you?” Dawson cried out.

“None of these worlds exist.”

Dawson, still limping towards the door (he wasn’t sure why), began to sob. He shut his eyes, no longer caring whether or not he slipped in the wet tracts of innards lining the floor, and whispered so softly that only his own mind could possibly have heard.

“Parin?” he whispered.

The witch laughter arose in his throat once more and he slipped in spleen at the same time. His cheek smacked against an unseen organ, cushioning its fall, and the confused and agonized screams followed on cue from the exercise room.

Now, at least, his renegade legs wouldn’t keep their dreadful shuffle to the light going. Now, he could get some rest and cower from the voice and the reality awaiting him in the next room.

“Don’t you want to know what time it really is, Commander? Don’t you want to know what’s real around you? Don’t you want to see what you’ve done?”

“I didn’t do anything!”

“You’ve almost broken through the skin. You can almost see what’s underneath. Come and see the wonders.”

Brief but no less terrifying visions of a dark-faced being, an arrangement of stones, and a swirl of color as unidentifiable and strange as the face itself, seared Dawson’s brain. He screamed until his voice was hoarse, louder even than the man in the room.

“It’s too late,” the voice assured him. “You’ve gone too far to stop now. Your ship has gone too far.”

Another image flashed through his consciousness, a young girl in a thick grove of trees, lying with a cloven-hoofed beast as dark shapes chanted around them.

“You’ve seen Parin,” the voice said.

Dawson could feel his sanity slipping from him, pouring out along with his sweat and tears.

Maybe Parin was all that there really was. Maybe Parin was truth.

“There’s no reason to stall.”

“I don’t want to see,” Dawson blubbered.

“I told you, it’s too late to look away.”

Against all odds, Dawson managed to scrunch his eyes shut even harder, then wiped at the side of his face. It was impossible to tell which liquid on his cheek was blood, which was snot, which was tears, and which was perspiration, but he didn’t want any of them near his mouth regardless.

“GET UP!” the voice suddenly roared.

There was no denying it when it yelled like that. Dawson got to his feet and opened his eyes.

The white light pouring from the exercise room had changed into a kaleidoscope of color, many of which Dawson could only recognize as colors out of space. They terrified him but he also knew it was pointless to resist their pull. His legs would carry him there eventually whether he wanted them to or not, and he didn’t want to wait and see whether the faceless voice would come for him in the meantime.

“GO,” the voice commanded.

The doorway was mere inches away but he couldn’t bring himself to look around the corner yet. More images stole through his head with frightening clarity and speed.

“LOOK.”

He stood in the doorway, holding the frame to brace himself and crying softly. There was nothing that could make him look, he thought. No matter how much the voice demanded it and no matter what the repercussions were for refusal, there was no way he could expose himself to the maddening dose of reality he sensed awaiting him.

The tormented soldier in the room screamed with renewed vigor. There were no words this time. Dawson wondered whether the man was crying out because he thought help had arrived or because he knew Parin himself was on his way.

Then the voice emerged from Dawson’s own throat, not laughter this time but a simple supplication: “Open your eyes.”

“No!” the man screamed.

“Come and see what time it is.”

“Please! No more!” the man begged. “Please!”

Still, Dawson didn’t open his eyes. Wouldn’t. Swore with all of his being that even an agonizing death was preferable to seeing Parin, though he suspected he already had.

“See what you’ve done,” the voice spoke through him, only it resounded with much more power than his normal voice and syncopated across a veil of stardust.

If it came to it, Dawson thought, he’d simply stop breathing to avoid it. Even that became impossible a moment later, though, when he felt the numbness spread throughout his body.

The soldier screamed.

There was nothing left to do. The sensation reached his jaw, his lips, his nostrils, and finally his eyelids, and those last flew up like poorly digested pork.

The moment his eyes opened, strange complexities of color reached out to Dawson, filled him, broke him down into smaller molecules allowing uninhibited passage of light particles, and then reconstructed him in the same breath.

It was horrible.

All around him, sprawled over exercise equipment, hung from the ceiling, hacked and separated and strewn about the floor in the puddles of their own essence, were the naked, mutilated bodies of his entire crew (minus Matthews, of course, but that would be remedied). Dozens of them. Hundreds, even. All bled out and dead as sanity except for the unfortunate man chained to a pillar of bone at the center of the room. The colors played on the piles of hewn flesh in terrible spectrums of terrible intent. They bathed in the stars streaming through the portside window, clothed not in skin or in garments but in a rapture of light and color more real and abominable than anyone could have imagined.

Except, Dawson could. Because he’d seen it before. Because, though the inspiration had come from elsewhere, this had all been his handiwork. Because sometimes you saw Parin, sometimes you caught a glimpse of reality beyond the material skin of the universe, and sometimes you became a part of its whole. Sometimes, it touched you.

The soldier screamed again and Dawson was aware that the man’s eyes had been burned out by the light and the colors. He wondered how his own eyes were able to withstand it, and then the voice was back in his head.

“Because I am a part of you.”

Dawson shuddered. He was aware that he was not alone, that he was seeing things he shouldn’t have, that he was staring right into the eyes of Parin without a filter. It was too much.

And even after everything he saw, he was still curious what time it really was beneath the surface of things.

“Then why don’t you go look?”

It made enough sense now that all apprehension had been bled from him, and it was too late to deny, anyway. The voice was right about that.

Heedless to the cries of the man who’d been so cruelly tethered to the pillar of bone through his skin and organs, Dawson limped across the room to the portside window, not knowing exactly what he was meant to see in that strange, gaseous conglomeration of light and color, but sure it would be an end to everything as he knew it, all the misery and uncertainty that had burrowed its way into him like a tick since the electrical failure all those weeks ago.

Just one glance and he’d be surrendered to Parin, the gatekeeper of reality and truth. Just one glance and he’d know he’d reached the edge of the universe.

Even with the heightened perception of truth Parin’s possession had given him, it took a moment for Dawson’s eyes to hone in on what he was looking for and even longer to process it.

Floating out in the sea of colors and light, tethered to the ship by an umbilical cord of oxygen and static, bobbed Commander Dawson himself. He smiled through the open mask of the spacesuit, as though the absence of oxygen was no more a hindrance than running out of clean underwear two days before Laundry Day. Why he’d even bothered to wear the suit, Dawson didn’t know, but it also seemed right to him. As strange as it was to see his own body awash in the cosmic sea, it didn’t trouble him in the least. Not anymore.

And when the great and terrible face of Parin filled the colored landscape with an insane grin, Dawson knew it was all over, and that was just fine.

The other Dawson, the one outside the ship, pointed at his wrist. “Do you know what time it is?”

Dawson looked down. The digital face of his wristwatch smiled at him while the ship tumbled over the edge of the universe, into the face of God.

SPECIAL FEATURES

“Visions of Parin paints a particularly haunting image of cabin fever in outer space. What happens when you see the face of evil and you’re stuck on a ship with nowhere to run?” Bloody Disgusting