Folie à quatre by Bill Suboski

The recovered flight data recorder has sat on the shelf in my office for several weeks. I am usually quite diligent in my duties and proud of my timeliness, but this is a part of my job that I detest. It is distasteful and macabre, to open and review these artifacts. But I am one of the station docking mistresses and this recorder was found in my sector.

The device itself is now merely a piece of physical evidence. Its contents have been offloaded and analyzed. Significant portions of the data were fatally corrupted, other portions only partially, but the overall story has been reconstructed and analyzed and analyzed again. All I need do is write my report. It need not be long; two or three pages is enough. In all likelihood no one will ever read it. 

The consulting psychologist has signed off and I lack both the experience and education to evaluate her conclusion. Her assessment seems reasonable, but of course it is an interpretation. Ever read poetic analysis? There are often five valid interpretations of the same sixteen line poem. Truth is often elusive and even evasive. 

But no one really cares. All I need do is affirm her assessment and close the matter. The report then goes into the archive, where it will likely never be read by anyone. The facts are not in dispute: this is the flight recorder from the Spicery, reported overdue seven years ago, and no evidence of tampering. The salvagers who brought it in received the standard compensation from the common fund, the fund womandated to ensure recoveries.

The crew of the Spicery was a group of four: Anise, Ginger, Sage and Saffron. As was conventional at the time, they shared a common surname, the name of their ship, although they were not genetically related. They were registered and licensed to operate in the seven systems. We officials call them scavengers, a pejorative I dislike. 

I punch up play mode, and the appearance of my office disappears, replaced with the illusion of sitting in main command on the Spicery, four minutes before the impact. As macabre as I consider this to be, I have sat through these recordings again and again, enough to now know the women by name and face. As the last minutes unwind, I struggle again to understand why.

Saffron is the nominal leader. She sits at the back, a striking young woman of cool reserve. Ginger pilots at the front. Sage sits to the right, performing instrumentation functions, and Anise is to the left. Her tasks are not clarified by the recording.

Anise: Saff, are we sure about this?

Sage: Annie, this is the right rock…

Anise: No, not that. Are we sure about what we are doing?

Saffron (tiredly): Anise, doubts again?

Ginger (laughing): She always doubts!

Anise: I just want to be sure. 

Sage (to Saffron): She just wants to be sure…again.

Saffron: Quiet, Sage. Anise, do you want to wait?

Anise takes a deep breath and pauses. At the same moment Ginger begins idling up the drive. Sage fixes on her board. The psychological report is comprehensive: the various recorded interactions show ongoing friction between Sage and Anise, mediated by Saffron. Ginger remains socially apart, but, interestingly, Saffron often takes subtle cues from her. Saffron also shows consistent favoritism and even emotional protectiveness of Anise, despite the fact that Anise is ten years older than any of them. So goes the psychological report.

Anise: No, no need to wait.

I can freeze the replay, walk around and study each woman’s face. I can play it at reduced speed, and search for micro-nuances in their manners and demeanors. I have done that again and again and learned nothing more. What I cannot do is know their thoughts and feel what they felt at this moment.

I have decided that this will be the last time I play the recording. I find it deeply disturbing. I accept the psychologist’s conclusion. She is a good woman, and excellent at her job. But I just can’t wrap my mind around the why of it.

The psychologist diagnosed this as “Folie à quatre”. It is a French term that translates as the “madness of four”. In the more typical and more common case of folie à deux, “the madness of two”, one person’s delusions and perceptions are shared with a second, who can reinforce, re-interpret and strengthen those delusions. Thus someone who suffers delusions with mostly lucid moments might come back to reality, shaking off the delusional state. But with a reinforcing partner, that lucidity can be lost, and the two, or four, in this instance, enter into an ongoing and growing psychotic state.

Anise was apparently the one most resistant to this, and Sage the most vulnerable. And while at the end Anise resisted, that was very brief. On even casual questioning she conformed. It all happens in the next few seconds. Ginger ignites the drive and the ship starts forward, picking up speed in a four gee burn that slams them first into their seats and then into the rock. All four women have a beatific smile on their faces as they are held immobile by the gee forces. 

Their small ship smashes like an egg and they die in pieces on the asteroid. The moment of impact is represented by utter whiteness which fades in a few seconds. I sit again in my office at the end of the recording. I do not know if I am saddened by the waste, or by the mystery, or both. But I will never know more than I know now. And I have no idea why this happened. 

To call it folie à quatre explains exactly everything and nothing. We replace a strange mystery with a fancy phrase that has no value. All we have is a label. Why they acted as they did remains impenetrable. I can do my job, and echo the psychologist, and close the file, but in doing so I am truly just ignoring the event. 

The next day I write my report and at the end of the day take the elevator out to the Spire. This is normally done by family and friends but none have come forward. We all have others waiting, commitments left unkept, and promises to keep. I will never know why they crashed the Spicery. What were they were thinking and feeling? What chain of events led to those cold deaths? But I do accept that I will never know.

I look out on the star field as I recite the only known written words of fictional Saint Leibowitz. Even Leibowitz was not alone. The Spicery had each other and no one else, it seems. I whisper the frequent eulogy of the lost spacewoman: “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.”

Bill is an aspiring fiction writer with a background in computer programming. He is still trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. Born in Indiana, Bill is a transplanted Hoosier living as a Buckeye by way of Canada and the Netherlands. Contact Bill at

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