The Joy Eaters, Part 4 of 5

Read previous parts here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Chuck clung to his wife’s body and laughed. Her skeletal fingers dragged on the floor as Chuck rocked in his hysterics. Her dim, gray, sightless eyes gazed out at a dull world.

Mark struggled to find a way to comfort a man lost in grief and unable to feel anything but happiness. He could not fathom what weight must have been on Chuck’s heart. He simply stood and watched, trying to offer his presence as a form of assurance.

The colony head continued to chuckle as he at last lay her body down on the carpeted floor of their entertaining room. He reached out with a shaking hand to close her eyes. He looked at Mark. Through laughter that shook his body, he begged, “Kill us all. Shoot something from orbit and kill us all. Please.”

Mark reached out to the man. “Calm down. Calm down, Chuck. It’s the infection. Whatever the infection is, it’s making you do this. It’s making you laugh when you want to scream in pain. It’s not you. I know you’re not happy. You loved her. I know. You don’t have any guilt in this.” Never mind they couldn’t honor his request, anyway. Magnus didn’t have any kind of destructive capabilities. It wasn’t a terraformer made to shape the land.

Chuck flung aside Mark’s outstretched hands and walked away. His laughter grew more and more hysterical.

Mark followed. “My team’s working on a cure. We’ll find it.” Never mind that Regan specialized in physical trauma and accidents, not strange diseases that humans had never encountered.

A tone sang in his ear.

Mark tapped the subdermal transmitter. “What?”

Regan’s tired voice answered, “Captain, I’ve autopsied the kid you sent. I have news. I don’t think you’re going to like it.”

“Well, the day can’t get worse. Give me a few minutes.”

“Your funeral.”

–          – – – –

Mark paced outside Chuck’s home. He could never stand still when speaking through the transmit. He’d left the colony head chuckling to himself in the house after spending some time calming him. He should be fine. Should.

Regan began her report. “So, after slicing into the kid’s head –“

“His name was Mason,” Mark interrupted.

“Sure. After slicing into his head and examining the pituitary, I found out what was causing the infection. It’s a form of mold. We’ve got similar molds back home at earth; they cause all sorts of strange brain problems. Nothing quite like this, though. This little guy feeds on endorphins. It provokes the pituitary to produce in amazing quantities. It eats a bunch, and lets the rest please the host.”

“That way the host never takes steps to cure in the infection.”

Regan approved. “It’s a good adaptation, really. The good news is: it’s easy to kill. I just need to apply a fairly standard antifungal.”

Mark nodded. “All right. Good news. Why didn’t the colony doctors figure that out?”

“To find out about the mold, you really have to do the autopsy. I’m guessing that by the time the docs were infected, no one had died yet. Difference here: mold hasn’t touched me. I’m already inoculating the crew in case you bring any up with you.”

“Good. Why’d you say I wouldn’t like it?”

“The mold lays down rhizomorphs, its version of roots, into the pituitary itself. When the mold dies, it’ll take a portion of the pituitary with it. The portion that produces endorphins.”

“What does that mean?”

Regan sighed. “It means that the body won’t have a chemical to produce euphoria. It won’t have the basic stimulant that helps blunt pain or bring an extra rush of pleasure. Or happiness in general.”

“In other words, to cure the population here from being happy constantly…”

“We’ll make it impossible for them to be happy again, period.”

Mark stopped. “What about us? What about planetside crew? Will the mold have laid down the root-things in our brains yet?”

Regan didn’t answer for a moment. Finally, “I don’t know.”

–          – – – –

Mark stumbled back into Chuck’s house. The colony head wasn’t in his entertaining room, though Polly’s body still lay on the white carpet. Mark wandered deeper into the home, checking rooms until he reached the kitchen.

Chuck lay on the dark tile floor. He held a dirty knife in his right hand. Blood spurted from his left wrist. He giggled.

Mark whacked his transmit as he rushed to the prone man. “Andrea. Chuck’s home. Now. We’ve got a suicide attempt. Grab someone else to help out. And any blood from the hospital.” Mark applied pressure to Chuck’s arm.

Andrea answered, “On the way.”

Chuck had already lost a lot of blood. The puddle spread out over the cold floor.

Chuck began howling laughter. “I’m the happiest man in the world and I want to die!” he crowed.

Mark resisted the urge to slap the man. It wouldn’t bring him to his senses. “Chuck, stay with me. Chuck, I know it hurts.”

“It doesn’t hurt!” sang the colony head.

“Chuck, your heart hurts.”

“No. It doesn’t.” Chuck lay his head down in the scarlet puddle, a smile plastered on his face. “That’s the worst part.”

Mark sprinted to the counter and grabbed a towel, rushing back to staunch the blood. He slapped the transmit again as it toned at him.

Andrea came over the transmit, “No luck on the blood; someone left the storage unit in the hospital unconnected from the power supply.”

“He’s lost too much blood. We’re going to need an evac up to Magnus, then. Get the shuttle over here.”

“We can’t risk contaminating the crew.” Andrea sounded out of breath.

“We don’t have the blood here and Regan thinks she’s found a cure. We need to save Chuck.”

Andrea huffed, “No, captain. No way. You will not take him up there.”

Chuck grinned at Mark. “It’s okay, Marky. I don’t feel any pain. It feels good. Like a sigh after laughing for too long.” His mouth hung open. His eyes stopped focusing.

“Stay with me!” Mark yelled as he continued pressing on the long slash.

“Marky, do we have to be happy in heaven?”

Mark looked into Chuck’s clouding eyes. This man needed comfort. Mark prayed. His mind raced for words even as he continued trying to stop the blood, the neverending blood. “You won’t be in heaven, Chuck. You don’t deserve it. You hurt yourself.”

“I know. I know I know I know.” Chuck was whispering now. “I shouldn’t have.”

“Chuck, I know someone who was hurt in your place and got what you deserve. He chose to not be happy. For you. Jesus took away everything you deserve. He died for you. He came back to life and set up a home in heaven.”

“I’m sorry, Marky. I’m sorry.”

“Chuck, you’re forgiven. You don’t have to worry. Jesus forgives you. He’s going to take you home. To heaven.”

“Do I have to be happy there?” Chuck’s breathing came in great heaves.

“No. You can rest there.”

Chuck’s face twitched into a smile. “Jesus will take me to heaven.”

The front door burst open and Andrea dashed to Mark’s side. She already wore the medical gloves that would protect her. Mark had never bothered to put any on.

Andrea surveyed the scene. “He’s going to need blood.”

Mark shot her a look as Chuck muttered, “I get to be sad in heaven…”

Andrea checked his pulse. “It’s erratic. We need to move him to the hospital. If we know his blood type, we might be able to get enough blood from one or more of us.”

Mark glanced around. “You got transportation? No way we can carry him over in time.”

He heard the sound of the shuttle landing on the front lawn.

Andrea answered, “I figured that if we couldn’t get him up to Magnus, we could at least get him to the medical facilities here.”

–          – – – –

Regan controlled everything from Magnus. She had Chuck’s blood type on file from previous uploads and found that Patch and Andrea both shared his type. By giving commands and controlling the machines, she was able to patch up the wound and transfer some blood. Hopefully it would be enough.

Chuck rested fitfully in the next room as Patch, Andrea, and Mark conferred.

Patch shook his head. “So, the colonists will never be happy again or they die happy. Or like Chuck. Think we’ll have to make the same choice?”

Mark groaned a chuckle. “I hope not. None of us are going back to Magnus unless Regan clears us. Which means we need to take the fungicide whether or not it burns out the part of the brain that lets us be happy.”

Andrea raised her eyebrows. “So how would that be different for you, exactly?”

Mark turned to face her. He locked his eyes on hers. He growled, “It’s clear we’re not working well together right now. I know you’re unhappy with me. Deal with it. I’m the captain. If you want to confront me on something, you do it between the two of us, not when there’s another member of the crew around.”

Andrea snapped, “You’re no captain. You’re a bleeding heart with legs and no sense of humor!”

Mark squared his shoulders and looked down at her. “You are relieved of duty. You will be confined to quarters for the rest of the trip or until I deem it proper to let you out, whichever comes first.”

Patch failed to suppress a giggle.

Andrea and Mark turned to face the tactics officer.

Patch pointed at Andrea. “You’re bitchy because you’re stressed out and you can’t stand people who actually believe crap you think isn’t real.” He turned his finger on Mark. “And you’re stressed because you think saving everyone’s your responsibility.” He barked a laugh. “And the rest of the crew gets to live with the tension! Whee!” He whirled his finger in a circle and flopped backwards onto a bed.

Mark asked, “The mold’s affecting him?”

“Hard to tell,” Andrea answered. “He’s always been a bit loopy.”

Patch sat up. “Listen to you two. You’re obviously ok to work with each other as long as you both look at the same problem. You! Stop thinking the captain’s the problem and just work with him. You! Stop thinking the crew’s a joke and deal with it.”

Mark looked at his feet. “I don’t think you’re a joke.”

“Really? Then stop comparing us to whatever the hell your last ship was. Doesn’t matter. We’re your crew now. Suck it up!” Patch poked Mark’s shoulder.

Mark looked up towards Andrea but didn’t meet her eyes. “I thought she was the only competent one, actually.”

Andrea’s eyes flickered up toward Mark and back down. “You’re an idiot, captain. You believe nonsense. I heard what you said to Chuck. The transmit was still open. But Patch’s right. It shouldn’t get in the way of me doing my job, no matter how much of an idiot you are.”

Mark huffed. Some apology. “All right. Let’s deal with this crisis and learn to work together a little better. Andrea, I’ll try to loosen up and deal with the crew on their terms. You deal with me on mine. Deal?”

The second in command wrinkled her nose. Mark had never noticed the fine spray of freckles there. “Yeah. You do your job, I’ll do mine.”

Patch nodded. “Good. Now, tell Regan to get some of that whatever it is down here, cause I’m feeling like grinning like an idiot, and I really shouldn’t be.

–          – – – –

Regan used the hospital equipment to scan the planetside crewmembers. Now that she knew exactly what to look for, she could use the equipment for delicate searches. She found the beginning of mold rhizomorphs in each of their pituitaries. The risk was relatively low they’d lose their endorphin production with the fungicide. No problem. She sent down enough doses for each of them, and in short order the mold in their body died. Further scans revealed some slight scarring of the pituitary, but nothing that would affect them for long. The cure was deemed a success.

The colonists were a different story. Even beyond the terrible side effect of the cure, Regan wasn’t sure she’d be able to produce enough of the fungicide to get to everyone. She, Bastion, and Andrea worked together to see if the hospital had the needed components. Regan wasn’t hopeful.

Patch pulled Mark aside as the others searched. “You and Andrea going to be able to work together?”

“I think so,” Mark answered.

“Good. Because I’m not playing the fool for you anymore. I smoothed things over, but I don’t want to be your peacemaker.” Patch hoisted himself to sit on one of high tables. “Next time you two can’t handle your squabbles, I pull you both from duty. And you know I’ve got the clearance to do it.”

“That little talk wasn’t because of the mold?”

“Hell, no. I was in complete control. I knew you two had to have someone whap you upside the head. So I did it.”

Mark shook his head. “You’re a heck of a tactical officer, you know that?”

“Most people think tactics officers are for dealing with pirates and other hostiles. I don’t buy that. I use tactics to make the ship run as best I can. And that includes keeping the captain in line if I need to.” Patch fixed Mark in a dark stare. “I was dead serious in what I said before. We’re your crew. Magnus is your ship. And if you’re pining for someone else, well, you ever have a girl that always talked about her last boyfriend?”

Mark nodded. “I see your point.”

“I don’t believe you, and I won’t until I stop seeing that longing in your eyes for something better. You got me?”

“I do. And… it’s good to know my tactics officer has the ship’s back. I expect you to watch with me and not just at me.”

“The whole ship includes the crew. That includes the captain. Now, don’t screw up again. Got that?”

Andrea called from the next room, “Captain?”

Mark gave one curt nod to Patch and led the way back to the other room. Andrea and Bastion had numbers up on every panel in the room.

“Well?”

Andrea sighed. “We got a problem. Even if we use all our stores, at best we can cure only half the colony. No matter what happens, we’re going to loose at least half the colonists. And if we did that… Magnus wouldn’t have medical supplies for the rest of our mission. So, we either cure half the colonists and leave ourselves without any medical protection –“

Mark finished, “Or we keep what we need and the colony dies.”

Read Part 5 here.

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